Influences of Mountainside Residential Development to Nutrient Dynamics in a Stream Network


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Virginia Tech


Forested mountain watersheds provide essential resources and services (e.g., water supply) to downstream ecosystems and human communities. Fast-growing mountainside residential development not only modifies the terrestrial system but also aquatic systems by changing the nutrient input from the terrestrial to aquatic. However, the impacts of mountainside residential development on stream ecosystems are complex because interactions between in- stream process and hillslope soils control in-stream nutrient dynamics, and it is difficult to experimentally study these interactions at broad spatial scales. In my dissertation research, I first developed models for leaf decomposition in a forested headwater stream by synthesizing several important ecological concepts, including ecological stoichiometry, microbial nutrient mining, and microbe-substrate interaction. I then extended the single stream model to a stream network model and further linked the stream network model with a terrestrial model that simulates nutrient processes and hydrology in hillslope soils. With this complete modeling framework, I conducted a global sensitivity analysis to evaluate the importance of terrestrial nutrient input versus in-stream processes in modifying nitrogen export. I also conducted a simulation to investigate the impacts of housing density, buffer zone protection, and stream travel distance from the residential development to the catchment outlet on nitrogen export at the local and regional scale. The model for leaf decomposition performed better for predicting detritus decay and nutrient patterns when microbial groups were divided into immobilizers and miners and when leaf quality was included as a variable. The importance of terrestrial nutrient input versus in-stream nutrient processes greatly depended on the level of terrestrial nutrient input. When terrestrial nitrate input was low, nitrogen export was more sensitive to in-stream net microbial nitrogen flux (mineralization - immobilization) than nitrate input. However, when terrestrial nitrate input was high, nitrate input was more important than in-stream net nitrogen flux. Greater impacts, i.e., higher nitrogen export at the local scale or greater change in nitrogen export at the regional scale, were associated with higher residential density, a lack of buffer zone protection, and shorter stream travel distance from the residential development to the catchment outlet. Although subject to model assumptions and further validation through field experiments, this research provides a general modeling framework for in-stream processes and aquatic-terrestrial linkages and expands an understanding of interactions between terrestrial and in-stream nitrogen dynamics and the impacts of mountainside development on stream ecosystems, identifies directions for further research, and provides insights for land and river management in mountainous areas.



Stream Ecology, Ecosystems, Ecological Modeling, Land Cover Change, Decomposition, Nutrient Spiraling