Checkered landscapes: Hydrologic and biogeochemical nitrogen legacies along the river continuum

J. Liu, K. J. Van Meter, M. M. McLeod, N. B. Basu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Decades of agricultural intensification have led to elevated stream nitrogen (N) concentrations and eutrophication of inland and coastal waters. Despite widespread implementation of a range of strategies to reduce N export, expected improvements in water quality have not been observed. This lack of success has often been attributed to the existence of legacy N stores within the landscape. Here, we use the ELEMeNT-N model to quantify legacy accumulation and depletion dynamics over the last century (1930-2016) across 14 nested basins within the Grand River Watershed, a 6800 km2 agricultural watershed in the Lake Erie Basin. Model results reveal significant legacy N accumulation across the basin, ranging from 705 to 1071 kg ha-1, creating a checkered landscape of N legacies. The largest proportion (82%-96%) of this accumulated N is stored in soil organic N reservoirs, as biogeochemical legacy, and the remaining in groundwater, as hydrologic legacy. The fraction of N surplus accumulated in soil and groundwater is most strongly correlated with the calibrated watershed mean travel time µ, with the accumulation increasing with increases in µ. The mean travel time ranges from 5 to 34 years across the watersheds studied, and increases with increase in tile drainage, highlighting the strong control of anthropogenic management on legacy accumulation. Water quality improvement timescales were found to be heterogeneous across the watersheds, with greater legacies contributing to slower recovery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number115006
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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