Stream restoration strategies for reducing river nitrogen loads

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Abstract

Despite decades of work on implementing best management practices to reduce the movement of excess nitrogen (N) to aquatic ecosystems, the amount of N in streams and rivers remains high in many watersheds. Stream restoration has become increasingly popular, yet efforts to quantify N-removal benefits are only just beginning. Natural resource managers are asking scientists to provide advice for reducing the downstream flux of N. Here, we propose a framework for prioritizing restoration sites that involves identifying where potential N loads are large due to sizeable sources and efficient delivery to streams, and when the majority of N is exported. Small streams (1st–3rd order) with considerable loads delivered during low to moderate flows offer the greatest opportunities for N removal. We suggest approaches that increase in-stream carbon availability, contact between the water and benthos, and connections between streams and adjacent terrestrial environments. Because of uncertainties concerning the magnitude of N reduction possible, potential approaches should be tested in various landscape contexts; until more is known, stream restoration alone is not appropriate for compensatory mitigation and should be seen as complementary to land-based best management practices.

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