Effects of urbanization on stream ecosystem functions

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As the human population continues to increase, the effects of land use change on streams and their watersheds will be one of the central problems facing humanity, as we strive to find ways to preserve important ecosystem services, such as drinking water, irrigation, and wastewater processing. This dissertation explores the effects of land use change on watershed nitrate concentrations, and on several biogeochemical ecosystem functions in streams, including nitrate uptake, ecosystem metabolism, and heterotrophic carbon processing.

In a literature synthesis, I was able to conclude that nitrate concentrations in streams in forested watersheds tend to be correlated with soil solution and shallow groundwater nitrate concentrations in those watersheds. Watershed disturbances, such as ice storms or clear-cutting, did not alter this relationship. However both urban and agricultural land use change increased the nitrate concentrations in streams, soil solution, and groundwater, and altered the correlation between them, increasing the slope and intercept of the regression line. I conclude that although the correlation between these concentrations allows for predictions to be made, further research is needed to better understand the importance of dilution, removal, and transformation along the flowpaths from uplands to streams.

From a multi-site comparison of forested, urban, and urban restored streams, I demonstrated that ecosystem functions like nitrate uptake and ecosystem metabolism do not change in a linear unidirectional way with increasing urbanization. I also showed that Natural Channel Design stream restoration as practiced at my study sites had no net effect on ecosystem function, except those effects that came from clearing the riparian vegetation for restoration construction. This study suggested further consideration is needed of the ecosystem effects of stream restoration as it was practiced at these sites. It also suggested that more study was needed of the effects of urbanization on ecosystem metabolism and heterotrophic processes in streams.

In a 16-month study of ecosystem metabolism at four sites along an urbanization gradient, I demonstrated that ecosystem metabolism in urban streams may be controlled by multiple separate effects of urbanization, including eutrophication, light, temperature, hydrology, and geomorphology. One site, with high nutrients, high light, and stable substrate for periphyton growth but flashy hydrology, demonstrated a boom-bust cycle of gross primary production. At another site, high benthic organic matter standing stocks combined with low velocities and high depths to create hypoxic conditions when temperature increased. I propose a new conceptual framework representing different trajectories of these effects based on the balance of increases in scour, thermal energy and light, eutrophication, and carbon loading.

Finally, in a study of 50 watersheds across a landscape urbanization gradient, I show that urbanization is correlated with a decrease in particulate carbon stocks. I suggest that an increase in dissolved organic matter quality may serve to compensate for the loss of particulate carbon as fuel for heterotrophic microbial activity. Although I saw no differences among watershed landuses in microbial activity per gram of sediment, there was a strong increase in the efficiency of microbial activity per unit organic sediment with increasing watershed urbanization. Ultimately, I hope that this research contributes to our understanding of stream ecosystem functions and the way land use change can alter these functions, with the possibility of better environmental management of urban streams in the future.






Sudduth, Elizabeth (2011). Effects of urbanization on stream ecosystem functions. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/3933.


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