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Water Resources Research






AGU Publications

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Along the river network, water, sediment, and nutrients are transported, cycled, and altered by coupled hydrological and biogeochemical processes. Our current understanding of the rates and processes controlling the cycling and removal of dissolved inorganic nutrients in river networks is limited due to a lack of empirical measurements in large, (nonwadeable), rivers. The goal of this paper was to develop a coupled hydrological and biogeochemical process model to simulate nutrient uptake at the network scale during summer base flow conditions. The model was parameterized with literature values from headwater streams, and empirical measurements made in 15 rivers with varying hydrological, biological, and topographic characteristics, to simulate nutrient uptake at the network scale. We applied the coupled model to 15 catchments describing patterns in uptake for three different solutes to determine the role of rivers in network-scale nutrient cycling. Model simulation results, constrained by empirical data, suggested that rivers contributed proportionally more to nutrient removal than headwater streams given the fraction of their length represented in a network. In addition, variability of nutrient removal patterns among catchments was varied among solutes, and as expected, was influenced by nutrient concentration and discharge. Net ammonium uptake was not significantly correlated with any environmental descriptor. In contrast, net daily nitrate removal was linked to suspended chlorophyll a (an indicator of primary producers) and land use characteristics. Finally, suspended sediment characteristics and agricultural land use were correlated with net daily removal of soluble reactive phosphorus, likely reflecting abiotic sorption dynamics. Rivers are understudied relative to streams, and our model suggests that rivers can contribute more to network-scale nutrient removal than would be expected based upon their representative fraction of network channel length.

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