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Characterizing Storm-Event Nitrate Fluxes in a Fifth Order Suburbanizing Watershed Using In Situ Sensors

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posted on 2014-07-15, 00:00 authored by Richard O. Carey, Wilfred M. Wollheim, Gopal K. Mulukutla, Madeleine M. Mineau
Land use influences the distribution of nonpoint nitrogen (N) sources in urbanizing watersheds and storm events interact with these heterogeneous sources to expedite N transport to aquatic systems. In situ sensors provide high frequency and continuous measurements that may reflect storm-event N variability more accurately compared to grab samples. We deployed sensors from April to December 2011 in a suburbanizing watershed (479 km2) to characterize storm-event nitrate-N (NO3–N) and conductivity variability. NO3–N concentrations exhibited complex patterns both within and across storms and shifted from overall dilution (source limitation) before summer baseflows to subsequent periods of flushing (transport limitation). In contrast, conductivity generally diluted with increasing runoff. Despite diluted NO3–N concentrations, NO3–N fluxes consistently increased with flow. Sensor flux estimates for the entire deployment period were similar to estimates derived from weekly and monthly grab samples. However, significant differences in flux occurred at monthly time scales, which may have important implications for understanding impacts to temporally sensitive receiving waters. Evidence of both supply (nutrient-poor) and transport (nutrient-rich) limitation patterns during storms is consistent with watersheds undergoing land use transitions. Tracking shifts in these patterns could indicate N accumulation in developing watersheds and help identify mitigation opportunities prior to N impairment.

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