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The importance of natural versus human factors for ecological conditions of streams and rivers

November 12, 2019

Streams are influenced by watershed-scale factors, such as climate, geology, topography, hydrology, and soils, which mostly vary naturally among sites, as well as human factors, agriculture and urban development. Thus, natural factors could complicate assessment of human disturbance. In the present study, we use structural equation modeling and data from the 2008-2009 United States National Rivers and Streams Assessment to quantify the relative importance of watershed-scale natural and human factors for in-stream conditions. We hypothesized that biological condition, represented using a diatom multimetric index (MMI), is directly affected by in-stream physicochemical environment, which in turn is regulated by natural and human factors. We evaluated this hypothesis at both national and ecoregion scales to understand how influences vary among regions. We found that direct influences of in-stream environment on diatom MMIs were greater than natural and human factors at the national scale and in all but one ecoregion. Meanwhile, in-stream environments were jointly explained by natural variations in precipitation, base flow index, hydrological stability, % volcanic rock, soil water table depth, and soil depth and by human factors measured as % crops, % other agriculture, and % urban land use. The explained variance of in-stream environment by natural and human factors ranged from 0.30 to 0.75, for which natural factors independently accounted for the largest proportion of explained variance at the national scale and in seven ecoregions. Covariation between natural and human factors accounted for a higher proportion of explained variance of in-stream environment than unique effects of human factors in most ecoregions. Ecoregions with relatively weak effects by human factors had relatively high levels of covariance, high levels of human disturbance, or small ranges in human disturbance. We conclude that accounting for effects of natural factors and their covariation with human factors will be important for accurate ecological assessments.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2019
Title The importance of natural versus human factors for ecological conditions of streams and rivers
DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.135268
Authors Tao Tang, R. Jan Stevenson, James Grace
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Science of the Total Environment
Series Number
Index ID 70206729
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center