Couplings of watersheds and coastal waters: Sources and consequences of nutrient enrichment in Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts

Abstract

Human activities on coastal watersheds provide the major sources of nutrients entering shallow coastal ecosystems. Nutrient loadings from watersheds are the most widespread factor that alters structure and function of receiving aquatic ecosystems. To investigate this coupling of land to marine systems, we are studying a series of subwatersheds of Waquoit Bay that differ in degree of urbanization and hence are exposed to widely different nutrient loading rates. The subwatersheds differ in the number of septic tanks and the relative acreage of forests. In the area of our study, groundwater is the major mechanism that transports nutrients to coastal waters. Although there is some attenuation of nutrient concentrations within the aquifer or at the sediment-water interface, in urbanized areas there are significant increases in the nutrient content of groundwater arriving at the shore’s edge. The groundwater seeps or flows through the sediment-water boundary, and sufficient groundwater-borne nutrients (nitrogen in particular) traverse the sediment-water boundary to cause significant changes in the aquatic ecosystem. These loading-dependent alterations include increased nutrients in water, greater primary production by phytoplankton, and increased macroaglal biomass and growth (mediated by a suite of physiological responses to abundance of nutrients). The increased macroalgal biomass dominates the bay ecosystem through second- or third-order effects such as alterations of nutrient status of water columns and increasing frequency of anoxic events. The increases in seaweeds have decreased the areas covered by eelgrass habitats. The change in habitat type, plus the increased frequency of anoxic events, change the composition of the benthic fauna. The data make evident the importance of bottom-up control in shallow coastal food webs. The coupling of land to sea by groundwater-borne nutrient transport is mediated by a complex series of steps; the cascade of processes make it unlikely to find a one-to-one relation between land use and conditions in the aquatic ecosystem. Study of the process and synthesis by appropriate models may provide a way to deal with the complexities of the coupling.

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We dedicate this paper to our friend and colleague, the late William E. Odum of the University of Virginia.

Work reported here is part of the Waquoit Bay Land Margin Ecosystems Research project, funded by the National Science Foundation, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The work was carried out in the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and we thank its executive director, Christine Gault, for her cooperation.

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Valiela, I., Foreman, K., LaMontagne, M. et al. Couplings of watersheds and coastal waters: Sources and consequences of nutrient enrichment in Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts. Estuaries 15, 443–457 (1992). https://doi.org/10.2307/1352389

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Keywords

  • Phytoplankton
  • Denitrification
  • Coastal Water
  • Macroalgae
  • Dissolve Inorganic Nitrogen