1. Landscape characteristics of sixty-two subcatchments within the Saginaw Bay Catchment of central Michigan were examined to identify relationships with stream water chemistry. Land use, land cover and elevation were quantified for both entire catchments and the upland–river ecotone (100 m stream buffer strip). Catchment and ecotone data were then empirically compared with stream water chemistry using multivariate and regression analyses. Redundancy analysis was used to partition variance among land use, geology, and the shared influence of land use and geology.
2. Major catchments dominated by rowcrop agriculture had the highest alkalinity, total dissolved solids and nitrate + nitrite concentrations.
3. Strong seasonal differences were observed in total nitrogen and nitrite + nitrate, but not in total phosphorus or suspended solids. Land use and landscape structure factors such as slope and patch density (number of land use patches per km2) accounted for most of the observed variance in summer.
4. In both autumn and summer, landscape factors accounted for much of the observed variation in total dissolved solids and alkalinity. During autumn, geological factors and the shared influence of geology/landscape structure plus land use exerted more influence than did land use alone.
5. Total phosphorus and total suspended solids were much better explained by land use within the stream ecotone in summer than in other seasons. However, total nitrogen, nitrate, orthophosphate and alkalinity were equally well explained by land use within the ecotone and throughout the whole catchment. Only total dissolved solids in summer and ammonium in autumn were explained better by the whole catchment than the ecotone.
6. Our results show that relatively coarse spatial databases can provide useful descriptors of regional water quality.