We reviewed published studies from primarily glaciated regions in the United States, Canada, and Europe of the (1) transport of nitrate from terrestrial ecosystems to aquatic ecosystems, (2) attenuation of nitrate in the riparian zone of undisturbed and agricultural watersheds, (3) processes contributing to nitrate attenuation in riparian zones, (4) variation in the attenuation of nitrate in the riparian zone, and (5) importance of in-stream and hyporheic processes for nitrate attenuation in the stream channel. Our objectives were to synthesize the results of these studies and suggest methodologies to (1) monitor regional trends in nitrate concentration in undisturbed 1st order watersheds and (2) reduce nitrate loads in streams draining agricultural watersheds. Our review reveals that undisturbed headwater watersheds have been shown to be very retentive of nitrogen, but the importance of biogeochemical and hydrological riparian zone processes in retaining nitrogen in these watersheds has not been demonstrated as it has for agricultural watersheds. An understanding of the role of the riparian zone in nitrate attenuation in undisturbed watersheds is crucial because these watersheds are increasingly subject to stressors, such as changes in land use and climate, wildfire, and increases in atmospheric nitrogen deposition. In general, understanding processes controlling the concentration and flux of nitrate is critical to identifying and mapping the vulnerability of watersheds to water quality changes due to a variety of stressors. In undisturbed and agricultural watersheds we propose that understanding the importance of riparian zone processes in 2nd order and larger watersheds is critical. Research is needed that addresses the relative importance of how the following sources of nitrate along any given stream reach might change as watersheds increase in size and with flow: (1) inputs upstream from the reach, (2) tributary inflow, (3) water derived from the riparian zone, (4) groundwater from outside the riparian zone (intermediate or regional sources), and (5) in-stream (hyporheic) processes.
Additional publication details
The importance of the riparian zone and in-stream processes in nitrate attenuation in undisturbed and agricultural watersheds – a review of the scientific literature