Maintenance of terrestrial nutrient loss signatures during in-stream transport

E. N.J. Brookshire, H. M. Valett, S. Gerber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

76 Scopus citations


Small streams account for the majority of channel length in river basins worldwide and are the primary conveyors of terrestrial nutrients to rivers and ultimately the oceans. The controls of stream nutrient fluxes, however, are debated. Classical models emphasize that nutrient transport in streams integrates nutrient cycling in the terrestrial watershed while others argue that in-stream processes control nutrient flux. Recent studies have shown that in-stream cycling can be important in determining downstream nutrient fluxes, but results have not been reconciled with mass-balance calculations at the smallwatershed scale. Here we use a simple analytical framework to assess nutrient cycling in streams and show that, under most conditions, longitudinally static nutrient concentrations reflect in-stream biotic balance between uptake and regeneration and groundwater inputs. Using measures of nutrient concentrations in small streams across four biomes, we provide evidence for generality of biogeochemical steady state (inputs = outputs) in stream ecosystems: overall, longitudinal profiles were flat for nitrogen and phosphorus and were similar in concentration to soil and ground waters. Deviation from flat longitudinal profiles was associated with seasonal or successional biomass growth and small groundwater inputs relative to in-stream sink strength. We conclude that streams tend strongly toward nutrient balance, allowing use of their chemistry as an integrated measure of terrestrial nutrient losses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-299
Number of pages7
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2009


  • Analytical model
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Nutrient spiraling
  • Small watershed concept
  • Streams
  • Terrestrial nutrient losses
  • Watershed nutrient budgets


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