This report describes the effects of urbanization on physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of stream ecosystems in 28 watersheds along a gradient of urbanization in the Willamette River basin and surrounding area, Oregon and Washington, from 2003 through 2005. The study that generated the report is one of several urban-effects studies completed nationally by the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Watersheds were selected to minimize natural variability caused by factors such as geology, elevation, and climate, and to maximize coverage of different stages of urban development among watersheds. Because land use or population density alone often are not a complete measure of urbanization, a combination of land use, land cover, infrastructure, and socioeconomic variables were integrated into a multimetric urban intensity index (UII) to represent the degree of urban development in each watershed. Physical characteristics studied include stream hydrology, stream temperature, and habitat; chemical characteristics studied include sulfate, chloride, nutrients, pesticides, dissolved and particulate organic and inorganic carbon, and suspended sediment; and biological characteristics studied include algal, macroinvertebrate, and fish assemblages. Semipermeable membrane devices, passive samplers that concentrate trace levels of hydrophobic organic contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls, also were used. The objectives of the study were to (1) examine physical, chemical, and biological responses along the gradient of urbanization and (2) determine the major physical, chemical, and landscape variables affecting the structure of aquatic communities.
Common effects documented in the literature of urbanization on instream physical, chemical, and biological characteristics, such as increased contaminants, increased streamflow flashiness, increased concentrations of chemicals, and changes in aquatic community structure toward a more tolerant community associated with organically enriched conditions, generally were observed in this study. The strongest correlations to the UII and to many of the algal, macroinvertebrate, and fish assemblage metrics and community ordination involved water-chemistry metrics including the total pesticide concentration, toxic equivalents (extract assay from semipermeable membrane devices), and dissolved oxygen. Hydrologic variability metrics, such as flashiness, that normally are considered to be one of the main processes of urban disturbance had a strong association to the algal and fish assemblages in this study; however, the hydrologic variables for macroinvertebrates were secondary to the water-chemistry metrics mentioned above. Generally, the high urban intensity sites had high abundances of eutrophic and lower dissolved oxygen-indicating diatoms, high abundances of noninsects and tolerant insects, and high abundances of nonnative fish species. On the other hand, the low urban intensity sites had higher abundances of pollution sensitive diatoms, larger numbers of the sensitive macroinvertebrate EPT taxa (Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera Orders), and fish assemblages with higher abundances of sensitive salmonids. The percent salmonid and macroinvertebrate EPT richness metrics plotted against the UII indicated a possible threshold response at about 25 on the UII, which is equivalent to an impervious surface value of about 5 percent. However, due to the added agricultural land use at sites within the 25 to 60 UII range, this possible threshold probably is not solely due to urbanization, but a combination of urban and agricultural land use. The effects of agricultural and urban land use could not be distinguished from each other, yet combined they provide a good assessment of overall watershed disturbance.