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Fate and Effects of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in Shallow Vegetated Aquatic Ecosystems (EPA/600/R-06/058)

Nitrate concentrations have greatly increased in streams and rivers draining agricultural regions of the Midwestern United States. Increasing nitrate transport to the Gulf of Mexico has been implicated in the hypoxic conditions that threaten the productivity of marine fisheries. Increases in nitrate concentrations have been attributed to a combination of factors including agricultural expansion, increased nitrogen application rates, increased tile drainage, and loss of riparian wetlands. These landscape-level changes have resulted in a decreased natural capacity for nitrogen uptake, removal, and cycling back to the atmosphere. Land managers are increasingly interested in using wetland construction and rehabilitation as a management practice to reduce loss of nitrate from the terrestrial systems. Yet, relatively little is known about the limnological factors involved in nitrate removal by wetland systems.

We conducted a series of studies from 1999-2000 to investigate the functional capacity of shallow, macrophyte-dominated pond wetland systems for uptake, assimilation, and retention of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). We evaluated four factors that were hypothesized to influence nutrient uptake and assimilation: 1) nitrate loading rates; 2) nitrogen to phosphorus (N:P) ratios; 3) frequency of dosing/application; and 4) timing of dose initiation. Nutrient assimilation was rapid; more than 90% of added nutrients were removed from the water column in all treatments. Neither variation in N:P ratios (evaluated range: <13:1 to >114:1), frequency of application (weekly or bi-weekly), nor timing of dose initiation relative to macrophyte development (0%, 15-25%, or 75-90% maximum biomass) had significant effects on nutrient assimilation or wetland community dynamics. Maximum loading of nitrate (60 g N/m2; 2.4 g P/m2) applied as six weekly doses stimulated algal communities, but inhibited macrophyte communities.

Predicted shifts from a stable state of macrophyte- to phytoplankton-dominance did not occur due to nutrient additions. Macrophytes, phytoplankton, and the sediment surface were all significant factors in the removal of nitrate from the water column. Overall, these shallow, macrophyte-dominated systems provided an efficient means of removing nutrients from the water column. Construction or rehabilitation of shallow, vegetated wetlands may offer promise as land management practices for nutrient removal in agricultural watersheds.


Timothy J. Canfield


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