Our study aimed to explore the effects of agriculture on the phosphorus buffer capacity of 11 headwater streams in Austria. We used phosphorus adsorption curves and re-suspension experiments to determine both, the potential of the sediments to act as phosphorus source or sink and the actual phosphorus exchange between water and sediments. Additionally, we determined the alkaline phosphatase activity (APA) in epilithic and epipsammic biofilms as indicator for the phosphorus demand of the benthic and hyporheic community. We hypothesized that highly polluted streams will show decreased phosphorus buffer capacities, which were either due to saturation or restricted water-sediment interactions. Our results support the second hypothesis. Fine sediment accumulations, organic matter content, and phosphorus concentrations in water and sediments increased with percent cropland in the catchment. Below SRP concentrations of 120μgL-1 in the stream water, sediments showed a high potential for phosphorus release, with zero equilibrium phosphorus concentrations (EPC0) being more than twice as high as SRP concentrations. Above 150μgL-1, EPC0 reached only 20-50% of SRP concentrations, indicating a high potential of the sediments to act as phosphorus sinks. These findings were confirmed by phosphorus uptake of these sediments during re-suspension. While APA in epilithic biofilms decreased with increasing SRP concentrations, APA in epipsammic biofilms showed the reverse pattern, indicating a restricted phosphorus supply of the hyporheic community despite phosphorus surplus in the water column. Our study shows that inputs of fine sediments from agricultural sources may reduce the phosphorus buffering mechanism of stream sediments through restrictions of water-sediment interactions. Consequently, water column and sediment processes are increasingly decoupled and phosphorus-rich stream water will not effectively reach the reactive sites in the sediments responsible for uptake. Therefore, phosphorus mitigation measures in stream ecosystems must comprise sediment management in the catchment as well as in-stream measures for the rehabilitation of the hyporheic zone.
Keywords: Epilithic biofilm; Epipsammic biofilm; Equilibrium phosphorus concentration; Phosphatase; Sediment clogging; Uptake.
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