Freshwater Salinization Syndrome Alters Nitrogen Transport in Urban Watersheds

Water (Basel). 2023 Nov 9;15(22):1-22. doi: 10.3390/w15223956.


Anthropogenic salt inputs have impacted many streams in the U.S. for over a century. Urban stream salinity is often chronically elevated and punctuated by episodic salinization events, which can last hours to days after snowstorms and the application of road salt. Here, we investigated the impacts of freshwater salinization on total dissolved nitrogen (TDN) and NO3-/NO2- concentrations and fluxes across time in urban watersheds in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. metropolitan area of the Chesapeake Bay region. Episodic salinization from road salt applications and snowmelt quickly mobilized TDN in streams likely through soil ion exchange, hydrologic flushing, and other biogeochemical processes. Previous experimental work from other studies has shown that salinization can mobilize nitrogen from sediments, but less work has investigated this phenomenon with high-frequency sensors and targeted monitoring during road salt events. We found that urban streams exhibited elevated concentrations and fluxes of TDN, NO3-/NO2-, and specific conductance that rapidly peaked during and after winter road salt events, and then rapidly declined afterwards. We observed plateaus in TDN concentrations in the ranges of the highest specific conductance values (between 1000 and 2000 μS/cm) caused by road salt events. Plateaus in TDN concentrations beyond a certain threshold of specific conductance values suggested source limitation of TDN in watersheds (at the highest ranges in chloride concentrations and ranges); salts were likely extracting nitrogen from soils and streams through ion exchange in soils and sediments, ion pairing in soils and waters, and sodium dispersion of soils to a certain threshold level. When watershed transport was compared across land use, including a forested reference watershed, there was a positive relationship between Cl- loads and NO3-/NO2- loads. This relationship occurred across all sites regardless of land use, which suggests that the mass transport of Cl- and NO3-/NO2- are likely influenced by similar factors such as soil ion exchange, ion pairing, sodium dispersion of soils, hydrologic flushing, and biogeochemical processes. Freshwater salinization has the potential to alter the magnitude and timing of total dissolved nitrogen delivery to receiving waters during winter months following road salt applications, and further work should investigate the seasonal relationships of N transport with salinization in urban watersheds.

Keywords: nitrogen; salinization; urban water quality.