• nonpoint source pollution;
  • watershed land use;
  • fish diversity;
  • urban development;
  • index of biotic integrity;
  • historical change;
  • watershed management;
  • imperviousness

ABSTRACT: We compared watershed land-use and fish community data between the 1970s and 1990s in 47 small streams in southeastern Wisconsin. Our goal was to quantify effects of increasing urbanization on stream fishes in what had been a predominantly agricultural region. In the 43 test watersheds, mean surface coverage by agricultural lands decreased from 54 percent to 43 percent and urban lands increased from 24 percent to 31 percent between 1970 and 1990. Agriculture dominated the four reference watersheds, but neither agriculture (65–59 percent) nor urban (4.4–4.8 percent) land-uses changed significantly in those watersheds during the study period. From the 1970s to the 1990s the mean number of fish species for the test stream sites decreased 15 percent, fish density decreased 41 percent, and the index of biotic integrity (IBI) score dropped 32 percent. Fish community attributes at the four reference sites did not change significantly during the same period, although density was substantially lower in the 1990s. For both the 1970s and 1990s test sites, numbers of fish species and IBI scores were positively correlated with watershed percent agricultural land coverage and negatively correlated with watershed urban land uses, as indexed by percent effective connected imperviousness. Numbers of fish species per site and IBI scores were highly variable below 10 percent imperviousness, but consistently low above 10 percent. Sites that had less than 10 percent imperviousness and fewer than 10 fish species in the 1970s suffered the greatest relative increase in imperviousness and decline in species number over the study period. Our findings are consistent with previous studies that have found strong negative effects of urban land uses on stream ecosystems and a threshold of environmental damage at about 10 percent imperviousness. We conclude that although agricultural land uses often degrade stream fish communities, agricultural land impacts are generally less severe than those from urbanization on a per-unit-area basis.