F. Y. Cheng
Disconnectivity matters: the outsized role of small ephemeral wetlands in landscape-scale nutrient retention
F. Y. Cheng, Junehyeong Park, Mukesh Kumar, N. B. Basu
Environmental Research Letters, Volume 18, Issue 2
Abstract Wetlands protect downstream waters by filtering excess nitrogen (N) generated from agricultural and urban activities. Many small ephemeral wetlands, also known as geographically isolated wetlands (GIWs), are hotspots of N retention but have received fewer legal protections due to their apparent isolation from jurisdictional waters. Here, we hypothesize that the isolation of the GIWs make them more efficient N filters, especially when considering transient hydrologic dynamics. We use a reduced complexity model with 30 years of remotely sensed monthly wetland inundation levels in 3700 GIWs across eight wetlandscapes in the US to show how consideration of transient hydrologic dynamics can increase N retention estimates by up to 130%, with greater retention magnification for the smaller wetlands. This effect is more pronounced in semi-arid systems such as the prairies in North Dakota, where transient assumptions lead to 1.8 times more retention, compared to humid landscapes like the North Carolina Pocosins where transient assumptions only lead to 1.4 times more retention. Our results highlight how GIWs have an outsized role in retaining nutrients, and this service is enhanced due to their hydrologic disconnectivity which must be protected to maintain the integrity of downstream waters.
Growing populations and agricultural intensification have led to raised riverine nitrogen (N) loads, widespread oxygen depletion in coastal zones (coastal hypoxia)1 and increases in the incidence of algal blooms.Although recent work has suggested that individual wetlands have the potential to improve water quality2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, little is known about the current magnitude of wetland N removal at the landscape scale. Here we use National Wetland Inventory data and 5-kilometre grid-scale estimates of N inputs and outputs to demonstrate that current N removal by US wetlands (about 860 ± 160 kilotonnes of nitrogen per year) is limited by a spatial disconnect between high-density wetland areas and N hotspots. Our model simulations suggest that a spatially targeted increase in US wetland area by 10 per cent (5.1 million hectares) would double wetland N removal. This increase would provide an estimated 54 per cent decrease in N loading in nitrate-affected watersheds such as the Mississippi River Basin. The costs of this increase in area would be approximately 3.3 billion US dollars annually across the USA—nearly twice the cost of wetland restoration on non-agricultural, undeveloped land—but would provide approximately 40 times more N removal. These results suggest that water quality improvements, as well as other types of ecosystem services such as flood control and fish and wildlife habitat, should be considered when creating policy regarding wetland restoration and protection.