Multiscale effects of surface-subsurface exchange on stream water nutrient concentrations

C. Lisa Dent, Nancy Grimm, Stuart G. Fisher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

120 Scopus citations


Stream-riparian ecosystems are landscapes composed of dynamic interacting terrestrial and aquatic patches. Patch composition and configuration affects both the form of transported materials and the amount of nutrient retention and export. We describe spatial patterns of nutrients in the surface water of an arid-land stream using surveys conducted at 3 different scales, ranging from 30 m to 10 km in extent and from 1 m to 25 m in grain. We then relate these patterns to connections with subsurface patches at channel subunit, channel unit, and reach scales. Our objectives were to compare spatial variation in nutrients across scales, to determine the causes of downstream changes in nutrient concentration in terms of intervening patches, and to investigate whether subsurface patches at different scales behaved similarly in terms of net nutrient processing. Nutrients varied spatially at all scales sampled. The highest variation was observed in nitrate-N (NO3-N) in the survey with the smallest grain (CV = 161%) and the lowest was observed in soluble reactive P (SRP) in the same survey (CV = 17%). We hypothesized that downstream changes in nutrient concentrations were caused by upwelling of high-nutrient water from the subsurface. To test this hypothesis, we identified locations of hydrologic inputs to surface water from the subsurface using geomorphic features of the stream such as gravel bar edges (channel subunit scale), riffle-run transitions (channel unit scale), and permanent groundwater sources (reach scale). As surface water passed over these locations, nutrient concentrations generally increased, particularly during late succession when subsurface patches acted as sources of NO3-N at all 3 scales and as sources of SRP at the channel unit and reach scales. A hierarchical approach allowed us to decompose effects of subsurface upwellings at different scales and to consider interactions between them. Processes occurring in subsurface patches influenced surface water nutrient patterns at scales from a few meters to several kilometers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)162-181
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of the North American Benthological Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2001


  • Hierarchy
  • Hyporheic zone
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient retention
  • Phosphorus
  • Scale
  • Stream

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science


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