Relationship between hydrological characteristics and dissolved organic carbon concentration and mass in northern prairie wetlands using a conservative tracer approach



[1] The semiarid prairie pothole region of the North American Great Plains is characterized by millions of small, shallow, closed basin wetlands. These wetlands are hydrologically dynamic, often losing considerable water volume and depth seasonally in response to high evaporative stress and/or infiltration rates. However, the consequences of such water loss on wetland water chemistry parameters, in particular dissolved organic carbon (DOC), remain relatively unstudied. Seasonal changes in DOC concentrations in 12 freshwater and saline wetlands at the St. Denis National Wildlife Refuge near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, were examined over an 8-year period (1993–2000). Specific conductivity in the study ponds ranged from 312 μS cm−1 to 33,493 μS cm−1 (seasonal means). DOC concentrations in all study ponds were high (>10 mg L−1) and increased across a gradient of increasing salinity (mean DOC values from fresh water to saline ranged from 19.7 mg L−1 to 102.7 mg L−1). In the majority of ponds, DOC concentrations increased seasonally from spring through fall. On average this increase was 21 mg L−1, with fall values averaging 60% greater than spring. The greatest DOC increases were observed in saline ponds which lost most of their water by evaporation. Although DOC in these ponds was highly correlated with the conservative tracer, chloride, the slopes of these regression lines were always less than 1 as were the DOC:chloride ratios, indicating nonconservative DOC behavior. Additionally, chloride concentrations increased much faster seasonally than did DOC. Taken together, these data indicated that although DOC was not behaving conservatively, at least some of the observed DOC increases could be explained by simple evapoconcentration. These data also suggested that saline ponds appeared to experience net seasonal removal of DOC. Possible removal mechanisms for DOC include infiltration to the pond margin, bacterial utilization, and photolysis. Freshwater ponds, which lost most of their water by infiltration to the pond margin, on the other hand, displayed less seasonal variation in DOC concentrations. In these ponds, the relationship between DOC and chloride ion was not as strong as in the saline ponds; the slope of this relationship was always >1, as were DOC:chloride ratios. These data indicated that although DOC was being lost to the pond margin as water infiltrated, freshwater ponds accumulated DOC seasonally. Decomposition and excretion of DOC by macrophytes, as well as by pelagic and attached phytoplankton, are the likely within pond sources of DOC here. The rapid response of these small, shallow aquatic systems to water loss make them ideal microcosms in which to study effects of climate on DOC concentrations and other water chemistry parameters.