Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Riparian and Associated Habitat Characteristics Related to Nutrient Concentrations and Biological Responses of Small Streams in Selected Agricultural Areas, United States, 2003-04

January 6, 2010

Physical factors, including both in-stream and riparian habitat characteristics that limit biomass or otherwise regulate aquatic biological condition, have been identified by previous studies. However, linking the ecological significance of nutrient enrichment to habitat or landscape factors that could allow for improved management of streams has proved to be a challenge in many regions, including agricultural landscapes, where many ecological stressors are strong and the variability among watersheds typically is large. Riparian and associated habitat characteristics were sampled once during 2003-04 for an intensive ecological and nutrients study of small perennial streams in five contrasting agricultural landscapes across the United States to determine how biological communities and ecosystem processes respond to varying levels of nutrient enrichment. Nutrient concentrations were determined in stream water at two different sampling times per site and biological samples were collected once per site near the time of habitat characterization. Data for 141 sampling sites were compiled, representing five study areas, located in parts of the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware and Maryland), Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, and Washington. This report examines the available data for riparian and associated habitat characteristics to address questions related to study-unit contrasts, spatial scale-related differences, multivariate correlation structure, and bivariate relations between selected habitat characteristics and either stream nutrient conditions or biological responses.

Riparian and associated habitat characteristics were summarized and categorized into 22 groups of habitat variables, with 11 groups representing land-use and land-cover characteristics and 11 groups representing other riparian or in-stream habitat characteristics. Principal components analysis was used to identify a reduced set of habitat variables that describe most of the variability among the sampled sites. The habitat characteristics sampled within the five study units were compared statistically. Bivariate correlations between riparian habitat variables and either nutrient-chemistry or biological-response variables were examined for all sites combined, and for sites within each study area.

Nutrient concentrations were correlated with the extent of riparian cropland. For nitrogen species, these correlations were more frequently at the basin scale, whereas for phosphorus, they were about equally frequent at the segment and basin scales. Basin-level extents of riparian cropland and reach-level bank vegetative cover were correlated strongly with both total nitrogen and dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) among multiple study areas, reflecting the importance of agricultural land-management and conservation practices for reducing nitrogen delivery from near-stream sources. When sites lacking segment-level wetlands were excluded, the negative correlation of riparian wetland extent with DIN among 49 sites was strong at the reach and segment levels. Riparian wetland vegetation thus may be removing dissolved nutrients from soil water and shallow groundwater passing through riparian zones. Other habitat variables that correlated strongly with nitrogen and phosphorus species included suspended sediment, light availability, and antecedent water temperature.

Chlorophyll concentrations in seston were positively correlated with phosphorus concentrations for all sites combined. Benthic chlorophyll was correlated strongly with nutrient concentrations in only the Delmarva study area and only in fine-grained habitats. Current velocity or hydraulic scour could explain correlation patterns for benthic chlorophyll among Georgia sites, whereas chlorophyll in seston was correlated with antecedent water temperature among Washington and Delmarva sites. The lack of any consistent correlation pattern between habitat characteristics and organic material density (ash-free dry mass)

Citation Information

Publication Year 2009
Title Riparian and Associated Habitat Characteristics Related to Nutrient Concentrations and Biological Responses of Small Streams in Selected Agricultural Areas, United States, 2003-04
DOI 10.3133/sir20095224
Authors Ronald B. Zelt, Mark D. Munn
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2009-5224
Index ID sir20095224
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nebraska Water Science Center