Micro and Macroscale Drivers of Nutrient Concentrations in Urban Streams in South, Central and North America

PLoS One. 2016 Sep 23;11(9):e0162684. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0162684. eCollection 2016.


Global metrics of land cover and land use provide a fundamental basis to examine the spatial variability of human-induced impacts on freshwater ecosystems. However, microscale processes and site specific conditions related to bank vegetation, pollution sources, adjacent land use and water uses can have important influences on ecosystem conditions, in particular in smaller tributary rivers. Compared to larger order rivers, these low-order streams and rivers are more numerous, yet often under-monitored. The present study explored the relationship of nutrient concentrations in 150 streams in 57 hydrological basins in South, Central and North America (Buenos Aires, Curitiba, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Vancouver) with macroscale information available from global datasets and microscale data acquired by trained citizen scientists. Average sub-basin phosphate (P-PO4) concentrations were found to be well correlated with sub-basin attributes on both macro and microscales, while the relationships between sub-basin attributes and nitrate (N-NO3) concentrations were limited. A phosphate threshold for eutrophic conditions (>0.1 mg L-1 P-PO4) was exceeded in basins where microscale point source discharge points (eg. residential, industrial, urban/road) were identified in more than 86% of stream reaches monitored by citizen scientists. The presence of bankside vegetation covaried (rho = -0.53) with lower phosphate concentrations in the ecosystems studied. Macroscale information on nutrient loading allowed for a strong separation between basins with and without eutrophic conditions. Most importantly, the combination of macroscale and microscale information acquired increased our ability to explain sub-basin variability of P-PO4 concentrations. The identification of microscale point sources and bank vegetation conditions by citizen scientists provided important information that local authorities could use to improve their management of lower order river ecosystems.

Grant support

HSBC Bank gave financial support for the FreshWater Watch, under the scope of the HSBC Water Programme. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.