Effects of urban stream burial on nitrogen uptake and ecosystem metabolism: implications for watershed nitrogen and carbon fluxes

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Biological Sciences

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Urbanization has resulted in the extensive burial and channelization of headwater streams, yet little is known about the impacts of stream burial on ecosystem functions critical for reducing downstream nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) exports. In order to characterize the biogeochemical effects of stream burial on N and C, we measured NO3 uptake (using 15N-NO3 isotope tracer releases) and gross primary productivity (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER) (using whole stream metabolism measurements). Experiments were carried out during four seasons, in three paired buried and open stream reaches, within the Baltimore Ecosystem Study Long-term Ecological Research site. Stream burial increased NO3 uptake lengths by a factor of 7.5 (p < 0.01) and decreased NO3 uptake velocity and areal NO3 uptake rate by factors of 8.2 (p < 0.05) and 9.6 (p < 0.001), respectively. Stream burial decreased GPP by a factor of 11.0 (p < 0.01) and decreased ER by a factor of 5.0 (p < 0.05). From fluorescence Excitation Emissions Matrices analysis, buried streams were found to have significantly altered C quality, showing less labile dissolved organic matter. Furthermore, buried streams had significantly lower transient storage (TS) and water temperatures. Differences in NO3 uptake, GPP, and ER in buried streams, were primarily explained by decreased TS, light availability, and C quality, respectively. At the watershed scale, we estimate that stream burial decreases NO3 uptake by 39 % and C production by 194 %. Overall, our results suggest that stream burial significantly impacts NO3 uptake, stream metabolism, and the quality of organic C exported from watersheds. Given the large impacts of stream burial on stream ecosystem processes, daylighting or de-channelization of streams, through hydrologic floodplain reconnection, may have the potential to alter ecosystem functions in urban watersheds, when used appropriately.


This article was originally published in Biogeochemistry. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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