- Land use alters the physical and biological structure of stream ecosystems and potentially alters their capacity to process nitrogen (N), an essential nutrient that has nearly doubled in abundance on the biosphere
during the past century from human activities. In this dissertation, I quantified uptake and transformation of nitrate (NO₃⁻) in small (≤ third-order) streams and related these dynamics to aquatic ecosystem processes, including primary production and organic matter decomposition, and attributes of riparian zone structure and vegetation composition. I also analyze patterns of stream NO₃⁻ processing among three classes of adjacent land use practices (forest, agriculture, and urban).
In Chapter 2, ambient rates of NO₃⁻ uptake and transformation were measured with 24-hr releases of ¹⁵N-labeled NO₃⁻ in nine stream reaches in the Willamette River Basin of western Oregon during summer low flow (July –
August). Three reaches each were surrounded by forested, agricultural or urban land use. After standardizing reaches to a 500-m length, I estimated that ≥ 20% of tracer ¹⁵NO₃⁻ was taken up by detrital and autotrophic biomass in eight of the reaches. In the remaining stream, which had the largest discharge (120 L s⁻¹) in this study, only 8% of the tracer was taken up in 500 m. Tracer labeling of detritus and autotrophic biomass and a positive correlation (rs=0.81) of uptake with gross primary production suggested that assimilation was the dominant uptake pathway in all streams. Denitrification, dissimilatory reduction of NO₃⁻ to N₂ and N₂O gases, composed 3 – 15% of
¹⁵N budgets over 500 m in two agricultural reaches and in one urban reach dominated by large slowly-turning over pools. However, denitrification was below detection limit at five of the remaining six reaches. This study showed that pathways of stream NO₃⁻ uptake and transformation differed among streams adjacent to three diverse land use practices.
In Chapter 3, I quantified effects of substrate nutritional quality and inorganic N loading (as NO₃⁻) on wood breakdown in western Oregon streams. Short-term (< 2 month) breakdown rates of wood substrates of high nutritional quality (Alnus rubra; red alder) and low quality (Pseudotsuga menziesii; Douglas-fir) increased with dissolved inorganic N (11 to 111 mg N L⁻¹) across six streams (p = 0.04), but this relationship was confounded with concurrent
increases in stream temperature. Across the six streams, breakdown rates of red alder were consistently double that of Douglas-fir. A longer-term study (313 d) in a coniferous forest Oregon Cascades stream suggested effects of increased NO₃⁻ availability on wood breakdown became evident after cellulose
and lignin components of woody tissues began to decompose (> 4 months of incubation). Average breakdown rates substrates enriched with NO₃⁻ were higher than those incubated in low NO₃⁻ conditions, but this difference was not statistically significant. However, microbial biofilm respiration rates and activity of two enzymes involved in the breakdown of woody tissues (beta-glucosidase and phenol oxidase) on red alder had significantly greater responses to NO₃⁻ additions than on Douglas-fir after four
months of incubation in the stream. Results suggest that increases in N loading to streams bordered by riparian forests with fast-growing deciduous species could increase wood breakdown rates. On the other hand, increases to N loading may have a smaller effect on wood breakdown in streams surrounded by long-lived coniferous species.
In Chapter 4, I quantified patterns of stream channel and riparian zone attributes for 72 streams equally distributed among forests or grasslands, agriculture, and urban land use practices on from eight major North American
regions. I also related these patterns to stream NO₃⁻ uptake determined from ¹⁵NO₃⁻ tracer releases. Agricultural and urban streams had a simplified channel structure (low width-to-depth ratio, low variation in stream depth, and high stream banks) relative to forest or grassland streams. Agricultural and urban streams also had a significantly smaller median sediment diameter (D₅₀)
and fraction of benthic sediments composed by silt than in forest and grassland streams. Overstory canopy cover over the channel and in the riparian zone was lowest for agricultural streams but did not significantly differ between forest or grassland streams and urban streams. A multiple regression model showed that stream NO₃⁻ uptake decreased with increasing canopy cover, but also increased with abundance of silt in benthic sediments. This suggested NO₃⁻ uptake was strongly influenced by in-stream primary production and extent of anoxic environments (conducive for denitrification). A multiple regression model for fractional NO₃⁻ uptake by denitrification further supported the concept that extent of anoxic environments influenced overall NO₃⁻ uptake in streams.
Through these studies, I demonstrated that attributes of riparian zone structure and vegetation composition can strongly influence NO₃⁻ uptake and transformation in stream ecosystems by controlling organic matter dynamics. I also have shown that riparian zone attributes vary significantly among three different land use types (forest or grassland, agriculture, and urban). Similarly, pathways of NO₃⁻ uptake and effects of NO₃⁻ on wood breakdown did or were
expected to differ among different land use types / riparian zone characteristics. However, other factors besides riparian attributes, particularly level of nutrient loading, alteration of stream channel physical structure, and basin position of the stream, must be considered in concert when evaluating effects of land use on riparian zone and stream ecosystem structure and