1. Urbanisation severely affects stream hydrology, biotic integrity and water quality, but relatively little is known about effects on organic matter dynamics. Coarse particulate organic matter (CPOM) is a source of energy and nutrients in aquatic systems, and its availability has implications for ecosystem productivity and aquatic communities. In undisturbed environments, allochthonous inputs from riparian zones provide critical energy subsidies, but the extent to which this occurs in urbanised streams is poorly understood.
2. We investigated CPOM inputs, standing stocks, retention rates and retention mechanisms in urban and peri-urban streams in Melbourne, Australia. Six streams were chosen along a gradient of catchment urbanisation, with the presence of reach scale riparian canopy cover as a second factor. CPOM retention was assessed at baseflow via replicate releases of marked Eucalyptus leaves where the retention distance and mechanism were recorded. CPOM and small wood (>1 cm diameter) storage were measured via cores and direct counts, respectively, while lateral and horizontal CPOM inputs were assessed using riparian litter traps. Stream discharge, velocity, depth and width were also measured.
3. CPOM inputs were not correlated with urbanisation, but were significantly higher in ‘closed’ canopy reaches. Urbanisation and riparian cover altered CPOM retention mechanisms, but not retention distances. Urban streams showed greater retention by rocks; while in less urban streams, retention by small wood was considerably higher. CPOM and small wood storage were significantly lower in more urban streams, but we found only a weak effect of riparian cover.
4. These findings suggest that while riparian vegetation increases CPOM inputs and has modest/weak effects on storage, catchment scale urbanisation decreases organic matter availability. Using an organic matter budget approach, it appears likely that the increased frequency and magnitude of high flows associated with catchment urbanisation exerts an overriding influence on organic matter availability.
5. We conclude that to maintain both organic matter inputs and storage, the restoration and protection of streams in urban or rapidly urbanising environments relies on the management of both riparian vegetation and catchment hydrology.