Watershed export events and ecosystem responses in the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve



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River export has a strong influence on the productivity of coastal waters. During storm events, rivers deliver disproportionate amounts of nutrients and organic matter to estuaries. Anthropogenic changes to the land use/cover (LULC) and water use also have a strong influence on the export of nutrients and organic matter to estuaries. This study specifically addressed the following questions: 1) How does river water chemistry vary across LULC patterns in the Mission and Aransas river watersheds? 2) How do fluxes of water, nutrients, and organic matter in the rivers vary between base flow and storm flow? 3) How do variations in nutrient/organic matter concentrations and stable isotope ratios of particulate organic matter (POM) in Copano Bay relate to river inputs? Water was collected from the Mission and Aransas rivers and Copano Bay from July, 2007 through November, 2008 and analyzed for concentrations of nitrate, ammonium, soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP), dissolved organic nitrogen, dissolved organic carbon, particulate organic nitrogen, particulate organic carbon (POC), and the stable C and N isotope ratios of the POM. The first half of the study period captured relatively wet conditions and the second half was relatively dry compared to long term climatology. Riverine export was calculated using the USGS LOADEST model. The percentage of annual constituent export during storms in 2007 was much greater than in 2008. Concentration-discharge relationships for inorganic nutrients varied between rivers, but concentrations were much higher in the Aransas River due to waste water contributions. Organic matter concentrations increased with flow in both rivers, but POM concentrations in the Aransas River were two fold higher due to large percentages of cultivated crop land. Values of [delta]¹³C-POC show a shift from autochthonous to allochthonous organic matter during storm events. Following storm events in Copano Bay, increases and quick draw down of nitrate and ammonium concentrations coupled with increases and slow draw down of SRP illustrate nitrogen limitation. Organic matter concentrations remained elevated for ~9 months following storm events. The [delta]¹³C-POC data show that increased concentrations were specifically related to increased autochthonous production. Linkages between LULC and nutrient loading to coastal waters are widely recognized, but patterns of nutrient delivery (i.e. timing, duration, and magnitude of watershed export) are often not considered. This study demonstrates the importance of sampling during storm events and defining system-specific discharge-concentration relationships for accurate watershed export estimation. This study also shows that storm inputs can support increased production for extended periods after events. Consideration of nutrient delivery patterns in addition to more traditional studies of LULC effects would support more effective management of coastal ecosystems in the future.