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Multiple in-stream stressors degrade biological assemblages in five U.S. regions

July 31, 2021

Biological assemblages in streams are affected by a wide variety of physical and chemical stressors associated with land-use development, yet the importance of combinations of different types of stressors is not well known. From 2013 to 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey completed multi-stressor/multi-assemblage stream ecological assessments in five regions of the United States (434 streams total). Diatom, invertebrate, and fish communities were enumerated, and five types of potential stressors were quantified: habitat disturbance, excess nutrients, high flows, basic water quality, and contaminants in water and sediment. Boosted regression tree (BRT) models for each biological assemblage and region generally included variables from all five stressor types and multiple stressors types in each model was the norm. Classification and regression tree (CART) models then were used to determine thresholds for each BRT model variable above which there appeared to be adverse effects (multi-metric index (MMI) models only). In every region and assemblage there was a significant inverse relation between the MMI and the number of stressors exerting potentially adverse effects. The number of elevated instream stressors often varied substantially for a given level of land-use development and the number of elevated stressors was a better predictor of biological condition than was development. Using the adverse effects-levels that were developed based on the BRT model results, 68% of the streams had two or more stressors with potentially adverse effects and 35% had four or more. Our results indicate that relatively small increases in the number of stressors of different types can have a large effect on a stream ecosystem.