Nutrient cycling in grassed roadside ditches and lawns in a suburban watershed

Lauren E. McPhillips, Peter M. Groffman, Rebecca L. Schneider, M. Todd Walter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Roadside ditches are ubiquitous in developed landscapes. They are designed to route water from roads for safety, with little consideration of water quality or biogeochemical implications in ditch design and minimal data on environmental impacts. We hypothesize that periodic saturation and nutrient influxes may make roadside ditches hotspots for nitrogen (N) removal via denitrification as well as biological production of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), and carbon dioxide (CO2). Research sites included 12 grassed ditches and adjacent lawns with varying fertilization in a suburban watershed in central New York, where lawns represented a reference with similar soils as ditches but differing hydrology. We measured potential denitrification using the denitrification enzyme assay in fall 2014 and GHG fluxes using in situ static chambers between summer 2014 and 2015, including sample events after storms. Potential denitrification in ditches was significantly higher than in lawns, and rates were comparable to those in stream riparian areas, features traditionally viewed as denitrification hotspots. Ditches had higher rates of CH4 emissions, particularly sites that were wettest. Lawns were hotspots for N2O and CO2 respiratory emissions, which were driven by nutrient availability and fertilizer application. Extrapolating up to the watershed, ditches have the potential to remove substantial N loads via denitrification if managed optimally. Ditch GHG emissions extrapolated across the watershed were minimal given their much smaller area compared with lawns, which were the greater contributor of GHGs. These findings suggest that roadside ditches may offer new management opportunities for mitigating nonpoint source N pollution in residential watersheds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1901-1909
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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