Dual nitrate isotopes clarify the role of biological processing and hydrologic flowpaths on nitrogen cycling in subtropical low-gradient watersheds
Nitrogen (N) is an important nutrient as it often limits productivity, but in excess can impair water quality. Most studies on watershed N cycling have occurred in upland forested catchments where snowmelt dominates N export; fewer studies have focused on low-relief watersheds that lack snow. We examined watershed N cycling in three adjacent, low-relief watersheds in the Upper Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States to better understand the role of hydrological flowpaths and biological transformations of N at the watershed scale. Groundwater was the dominant source of nitrified N to stream water in 2 of the 3 watersheds, while atmospheric deposition comprised 28% of stream water nitrate in one watershed. The greater atmospheric contribution may have been due to the larger stream channel area relative to total watershed area or the dominance of shallow subsurface flowpaths contributing to stream flow in this watershed. There was a positive relationship between temperature and stream water ammonium concentrations and a negative relationship between temperature and stream water nitrate concentrations in each watershed suggesting that N cycling processes (i.e., nitrification, denitrification) varied seasonally. However, there were no clear patterns in the importance of denitrification in different water pools possibly because a variety of factors (i.e., assimilatory uptake, dissimilatory uptake, mixing) affected nitrate concentrations. Together, these results highlight the hydrological and biological controls on N cycling in low-gradient watersheds, and variability in N delivery flowpaths among adjacent watersheds with similar physical characteristics.