Urban trees reduce nutrient leaching to groundwater

Ecol Appl. 2016 Jul;26(5):1566-1580. doi: 10.1002/15-0976.


Many urban waterways suffer from excess nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), feeding algal blooms, which cause lower water clarity and oxygen levels, bad odor and taste, and the loss of desirable species. Nutrient movement from land to water is likely to be influenced by urban vegetation, but there are few empirical studies addressing this. In this study, we examined whether or not urban trees can reduce nutrient leaching to groundwater, an important nutrient export pathway that has received less attention than stormwater. We characterized leaching beneath 33 trees of 14 species, and seven open turfgrass areas, across three city parks in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA. We installed lysimeters at 60 cm depth to collect soil water approximately biweekly from July 2011 through October 2013, except during winter and drought periods, measured dissolved organic carbon (C), N, and P in soil water, and modeled water fluxes using the BROOK90 hydrologic model. We also measured soil nutrient pools (bulk C and N, KCl-extractable inorganic N, Brays-P), tree tissue nutrient concentrations (C, N, and P of green leaves, leaf litter, and roots), and canopy size parameters (leaf biomass, leaf area index) to explore correlations with nutrient leaching. Trees had similar or lower N leaching than turfgrass in 2012 but higher N leaching in 2013; trees reduced P leaching compared with turfgrass in both 2012 and 2013, with lower leaching under deciduous than evergreen trees. Scaling up our measurements to an urban subwatershed of the Mississippi River (~17 400 ha, containing ~1.5 million trees), we estimated that trees reduced P leaching to groundwater by 533 kg in 2012 (0.031 kg/ha or 3.1 kg/km2 ) and 1201 kg in 2013 (0.069 kg/ha or 6.9 kg/km2 ). Removing these same amounts of P using stormwater infrastructure would cost $2.2 million and $5.0 million per year (2012 and 2013 removal amounts, respectively).

Keywords: groundwater; nitrogen; nutrient leaching; nutrient pollution; phosphorus; plant traits; urban ecosystems; urban trees.

MeSH terms

  • Cities*
  • Groundwater / chemistry*
  • Minnesota
  • Soil / chemistry
  • Trees / chemistry
  • Trees / physiology*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / chemistry*


  • Soil
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical