Nutrient flux in a landscape: Effects of coastal land use and terrestrial community mosaic on nutrient transport to coastal waters
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Long-term interdisciplinary studies of the Rhode River estuary and its watershed in the mid-Atlantic coastal plain of North America have measured fluxes of nitrogen and phosphorus fractions through the hydrologically-linked ecosystems of this landscape. These ecosystems are upland forest, cropland, and pasture; streamside riparian forests; floodplain swamps; tidal brackish marshes and mudflats; and an estuarine embayment. Croplands discharged far more nitrogen per hectare in runoff than did forests and pastures. However, riparian deciduous hardwood forest bordering the cropland removed over 80 percent of the nitrate and total phosphorus in overland flows and about 85 percent of the nitrate in shallow groundwater drainage from cropland. Nevertheless, nutrient discharges from riparian forests downslope from croplands still exceeded discharges from pastures and other forests. The atomic ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus discharged from the watersheds into the estuary was about 9 for total nutrients and 6 for inorganic nutrient fractions. Such a low N:P ratio would promote nitrogen rather than phosphorus limitation of phytoplankton growth in the estuary. Estuarine tidal marshes trapped particulate nutrients and released dissolved nutrients. Subtidal mudflats in the upper estuary trapped particulate P, released dissolved phosphate, and consumed nitrate. This resulted in a decrease in the ratio of dissolved inorganic N:P in the estuary. However, the upper estuary was a major sink for total phosphorus due to sediment accretion in the subtidal area. Bulk precipitation accounted for 31 percent of the total nongaseous nitrogen influx to the landscape, while farming accounted for 69 percent. Forty-six percent of the total non-gaseous nitrogen influx was removed as farm products, 53 percent either accumulated in the watershed or was lost in gaseous forms, and 1 percent entered the Rhode River. Of the total phosphorus influx to the landscape, 7 percent was from bulk precipitation and 93 percent was from farming. Forty-five percent of the total phosphorus influx was removed as farm products, 48 percent accumulated in the watershed, and 7 percent entered the Rhode River. These nitrogen and phosphorus discharges into the Rhode River, although a small fraction of total loadings to the watershed, were large enough to cause seriously overenriched conditions in the upper estuary.
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