Cumulatively, headwater streams contribute to maintaining hydrologic connectivity and ecosystem integrity at regional scales. Hydrologic connectivity is the water-mediated transport of matter, energy and organisms within or between elements of the hydrologic cycle. Headwater streams compose over two-thirds of total stream length in a typical river drainage and directly connect the upland and riparian landscape to the rest of the stream ecosystem. Altering headwater streams, e.g., by channelization, diversion through pipes, impoundment and burial, modifies fluxes between uplands and downstream river segments and eliminates distinctive habitats. The large-scale ecological effects of altering headwaters are amplified by land uses that alter runoff and nutrient loads to streams, and by widespread dam construction on larger rivers (which frequently leaves free-flowing upstream portions of river systems essential to sustaining aquatic biodiversity). We discuss three examples of large-scale consequences of cumulative headwater alteration. Downstream eutrophication and coastal hypoxia result, in part, from agricultural practices that alter headwaters and wetlands while increasing nutrient runoff. Extensive headwater alteration is also expected to lower secondary productivity of river systems by reducing stream-system length and trophic subsidies to downstream river segments, affecting aquatic communities and terrestrial wildlife that utilize aquatic resources. Reduced viability of freshwater biota may occur with cumulative headwater alteration, including for species that occupy a range of stream sizes but for which headwater streams diversify the network of interconnected populations or enhance survival for particular life stages. Developing a more predictive understanding of ecological patterns that may emerge on regional scales as a result of headwater alterations will require studies focused on components and pathways that connect headwaters to river, coastal and terrestrial ecosystems. Linkages between headwaters and downstream ecosystems cannot be discounted when addressing large-scale issues such as hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and global losses of biodiversity.
Additional Publication Details
Hydrologic connectivity and the contribution of stream headwaters to ecological integrity at regional scales
Journal of the American Water Resources Association