, Volume 74, Issue 3, pp 303–321 | Cite as

Fate and Transport of Organic Nitrogen in Minimally Disturbed Montane Streams of Colorado, USA

  • Sujay S. Kaushal
  • William M. LewisJr.


In two montane watersheds that receive minimal deposition of atmospheric nitrogen, 15–71% of dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) was bioavailable in stream water over a 2-year period. Discharge-weighted concentrations of bulk DON were between 102 and 135 μg/l, and the C:N ratio differed substantially between humic and non-humic fractions of DON. Approximately 70% of DON export occurred during snowmelt, and 40% of that DON was biologically available to microbes in stream sediments. Concentrations of bioavailable DON in stream water were 2–16 times greater than dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) during the growing season, and bioavailable DON was depleted within 2–14 days during experimental incubations. Uptake of DON was influenced by the concentration of inorganic N in stream water, the concentration of non-humic DON in stream water, and the C:N ratio of the non-humic fraction of dissolved organic matter (DOM). Uptake of DON declined logarithmically as the concentration of inorganic N in stream water increased. Experimental additions of inorganic N also caused a decline in uptake of DON and net production of DON when the C:N ratio of non-humic DOM was high. This study indicates that the relative and absolute amount of bioavailable DON can vary greatly within and across years due to interactions between the availability of inorganic nutrients and composition of DOM. DOM has the potential to be used biotically at a high rate in nitrogen-poor streams, and it may be generated by heterotrophic microbes when DIN and labile DOM with low relative nitrogen content become abundant.


Bioavailability Nitrate Nitrogen cycling Organic carbon Organic nitrogen 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Baker, M.A., Valett, H.M., Dahm, C.N. 2000Organic carbon supply and metabolism in a shallow groundwater ecosystemEcology8131333148Google Scholar
  2. Baron, J.S., Campbell, D.H. 1997Nitrogen fluxes in a high-elevation Colorado Rocky Mountain BasinHydrol. Process.11783799CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Berman, T. 2001The role of DON and the effect of N:P ratios on occurence of cyanobacterial blooms: Implications from the outgrowth of Aphanizomenon in Lake Kinneret.Limnology and Oceanography46443447Google Scholar
  4. Bernhardt, E.S., Likens, G.E. 2002Dissolved organic carbon enrichment alters nitrogen dynamics in a forest streamEcology8316891700Google Scholar
  5. Boyer, J.N., Groffman, P.M. 1996Bioavailability of water extractable organic carbon fractions in forest and agricultural soil profilesSoil Biol. Biochem.28783790CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brooks, P.D., McKnight, D.M., Bencala, K.E. 1999The relationship between soil heterotrophic activity, soil dissolved organic carbon (DOC) leachateand catchment-scale DOC export in headwater catchmentsWater Resour. Res.3518951902CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bronk, D.A., Glibert, P.M., Malone, T.C., Banahan, S., Sahlsten, E 1998Inorganic and organic nitrogen cycling in Chesapeake Bay: autotrophic versus heterotrophic processes and relationships to carbon fluxAquat. Microb. Ecol.15177189Google Scholar
  8. Bronk, D.A., Ward, B.B. 1999Gross and net nitrogen uptake and DON release in the euphotic zone of Monterey Bay, CaliforniaLimnol. Oceanogr.44573585Google Scholar
  9. Bronk, D.A., Ward, B.B. 2000Magnitude of dissolved organic nitrogen release relative to gross nitrogen uptake in marine systemsLimnol. Oceanogr.4518791883Google Scholar
  10. Buffam, I., Galloway, J.N., Blum, L.K., McGlathery, K.J. 2001A stormflow/baseflow comparison of dissolved organic matter concentrations and bioavailability in an Appalachian streamBiogeochemistry53269306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bushaw, K.L., Zepp, R.G., Tarr, M.A., SchulzJander, D., Bourbonniere, R.A., Hodson, R.E., Miller, W.L., Bronk, D.A., Moran, M.A. 1996Photochemical release of biologically available nitrogen from aquatic dissolved organic matterNature381404407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Campbell, J.L., Hornbeck, J.W., McDowell, W.H., Buso, D.C., Shanley, J.B., Likens, G.E. 2000Dissolved organic nitrogen budgets for upland forested ecosystems in New EnglandBiogeochemistry49123142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Caraco, N.F., Cole, J.J. 2003The importance of organic nitrogen production in aquatic systems: a landscape perspectiveFindlay, S.E.G.Sinsabaugh, R.L. eds. Aquatic Ecosystems: Interactivity of Dissolved Organic MatterElsevier ScienceUSA263279Google Scholar
  14. Caraco, N.F., Lampman, G., Cole, J.J., Limburg, K.E., Pace, M.L., Fischer, D 1998Microbial assimilation of DIN in a nitrogen rich estuary: implications for food quality and isotope studiesMarine Ecol. Prog. Ser.1675971Google Scholar
  15. Currie, W.S., Aber, J.D., McDowell, W.H., Boone, R.D., Magill, A.H. 1996Vertical transport of dissolved organic C and N under long-term N amendments in pine and hardwood forestsBiogeochemistry35471505CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Davi, M.L., Bignami, S., Milan, C., Liboni, M., Malfatto, M.G. 1993Determination of nitrate in surface waters by ion-exchange chromatography after oxidation of total organic nitrogen to nitrateJ. Chromatogr.644345348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dodds, W.K. 2003Misuse of inorganic N and soluble reactive P concentrations to indicate nutrient status of surface watersJ. Nor. Am. Benthol. Soc.22171181Google Scholar
  18. Findlay, S 2003Bacterial response to variation in dissolved organic matterFindlay, S.E.G.Sinsabaugh, R.L. eds. Aquatic Ecosystems: Interactivity of Dissolved Organic MatterElsevier ScienceUSA363377Google Scholar
  19. Findlay, S., Quinn, J.M., Hickey, C.W., Burrell, G., Downes, M 2001Effects of land use and riparian flowpath on delivery of dissolved organic carbon to streamsLimnol. Oceanogr.46345355Google Scholar
  20. Goodale, C.L., Aber, J.D., McDowell, W.H. 2000The long-term effects of disturbance on organic and inorganic nitrogen export in the White Mountains, New HampshireEcosystems3433450CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Grashoff, K. 1976Methods of Seawater AnalysisVerlag ChmimieWeinheim126137Google Scholar
  22. Groffman, P.M., Zak, D.R., Christensen, S., Mosier, A., Tiedje, J.M. 1993Early spring nitrogen dynamics in a temperate forest landscapeEcology7415791585Google Scholar
  23. Guggenberger, G., Zech, W., Schulten, H.R. 1994Formation and mobilization pathways of dissolved organic matter: evidence from chemical structural studies of organic matter fractions in acid forest floor solutionsOrg. Geochem.215166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Guldberg, L.B., Finster, K., Jorgenson, N.O.G., Middelboe, M., Lomstein, B.A. 2002Utilization of marine sedimentary dissolved organic nitrogen by native anaerobic bacteriaLimnol. Oceanogr.4717121722Google Scholar
  25. Hedin, L.O., Armesto, J.J., Johnson, A.H. 1995Patterns of nutrient loss from unpollutedold-growth temperate forests: evaluation of biogeochemical theoryEcology76493509Google Scholar
  26. Hood, E., McKnight, D.M., Williams, M.W. 2003Sources and chemical character of dissolved organic carbon across an alpine/subalpine ecotoneGreen Lakes Valley, Colorado Front RangeUnited StatesWater Resour. Res.391188CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kaiser, K., Zech, W. 2000Sorption of dissolved organic nitrogen by acid subsoil horizons and individual mineral phasesEur. J. Soil Sci.51403411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kaushal, S., Binford, M.W. 1999Relationship between C:N ratios of lake sediments, organic matter sources, and historical deforestation in Lake PleasantMassachusettsJ. Paleolimnol.22439442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kaushal, S.S., Lewis, W.M.,Jr. 2003Patterns in the chemical fractionation of organic nitrogen in Rocky Mountain streamsEcosystems6483492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lagler, C.L., Hendrix, P.F. 1982Evaluation of persulfate digestion method for particulate nitrogen and phosphorusWater Res.1614511454CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lajtha, K., Seely, B., Valiela, I 1995Retention and leaching losses of atmospherically-derived nitrogen in the aggrading coastal watershed of Waquoit Bay, MABiogeochemistry283354CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lewis, W.M.,Jr. 1986Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff losses from a nutrient-poor tropical moist forestEcology6712751282Google Scholar
  33. Lewis, W.M.,Jr. 2002Yield of nitrogen from minimally disturbed watersheds of the United StatesBiogeochemistry57375385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lewis Geoderma, W.M.,Jr., Grant, M.C., Saunders, J.F.,III 1984aChemical patterns of atmospheric deposition in the state of ColoradoWater Resour. Res.101611704Google Scholar
  35. Lewis, W.M.,Jr., Melack, J.M., McDowell, W.H., McClain, M., Richey, J.E. 1999Nitrogen yields from undisturbed watersheds in the AmericasBiogeochemistry46149162CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lewis, W.M.,Jr., Saunders, J.F.,III, Crumpacker, D.W.,Sr., Brendecke, C. 1984bEutrophication and Land Use: Lake Dillon, ColoradoSpringer-VerlagNew YorkGoogle Scholar
  37. Lipson, D.A., Schmidt, S.K., Monson, R.K. 1999Links between microbial population dynamics and nitrogen availability in an alpine ecosystemEcology8016231631Google Scholar
  38. Lovett, G.M., Weathers, K.C., Sobczak, W.V. 1998Nitrogen saturation and retention in forested watersheds of the Catskill Mountains, NYEcol. Appl.107384CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. McCutchan, J.H.,Jr., Lewis, W.M.,Jr. 2002Relative importance of carbon sources for macroinvertebrates in a Rocky Mountain streamLimnol. Oceanogr.47742752Google Scholar
  40. McDowell, W.H., Currie, W.S., Aber, J.D., Yano, Y. 1998Effects of chronic nitrogen amendments on production of dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen in forest soilsWater Air Soil Pollut.105175182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. McDowell W.H., Magill A., Aitkenhead-Peterson J.A., Aber J.D., Merriam J. and Kaushal S.S. (In Press) Effects of chronic nitrogen amendment on dissolved organic matter and inorganic nitrogen in soil solution. Forest Ecol. Manage.Google Scholar
  42. McKnight, D.M., Harnish, R., Wershaw, R.L., Baron, J.S., Schiff, S. 1997Chemical characteristics of particulatecolloidal, and dissolved organic material in Loch ValeWatershedRocky Mountain National ParkBiogeochemistry3699124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Michaelson, G.J., Ping, C.L., Kling, G.W., Hobbie, J.E. 1998The character and bioactivity of dissolved organic matter at thaw and in the spring runoff waters of the arctic tundra north slopeAlaskaJ. Geophys. Res.1032893928946CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Moran, M.A., Hodson, R.E. 1990Bacterial production on humic and nonhumic components of dissolved organic carbonLimnol. Oceanogr.3517441756Google Scholar
  45. Mulholland, P.J., Tank, J.L., Sanzone, D.M., Wollheim, W.M., Peterson, B.J., Webster, J.R., Meyer, J.L. 2000Nitrogen cycling in a forest stream determined by a N-15 tracer additionEcol. Monogr.70471493Google Scholar
  46. Murphy, J., Riley, J.P. 1962A modified single solution method for the determination of phosphate in natural watersAnal. Chim. Acta273136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Neff, J.C., Hooper, D.U. 2002Vegetation and climate controls on potential CO2DOC and DON production in northern latitude soilsGlobal Change Biol.8872884CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Neff, J.C., Chapin, F.S., Vitousek, P.M. 2003The role of dissolved organic nitrogen in nutrient retention and plant mineral nutrition; reconciling observations with ecological theoryFront. Ecol. Environ. Sci.1205211Google Scholar
  49. Peierls, B.L., Paerl, H.W. 1997Bioavailability of atmospheric organic nitrogen deposition to coastal phytoplanktonLimnol. Oceanogr.421811823Google Scholar
  50. Perakis, S.S., Hedin, L.O. 2002Nitrogen losses from unpolluted South American forests mainly via dissolved organic compoundsNature415416419CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Peterson, B.J., Bahr, M., Kling, G.W. 1997A tracer investigation of nitrogen cycling in a pristine tundra riverCan. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci.5423612367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Qualls, R.G., Haines, B.L. 1991Geochemistry of dissolved organic nutrients in water percolating through a forested ecosystemSoil Sci. Soc. Am. J.5511121123Google Scholar
  53. Qualls, R.G., Haines, B.L. 1992Biodegradability of dissolved organic-matter in forest throughfall, soil solution, and stream waterSoil Sci. Soc. Am. J.56578586Google Scholar
  54. Qualls, R.G., Haines, B.L., Swank, W.T., Tyler, S.W. 2002Retention of soluble organic nutrients by a forested ecosystemBiogeochemistry61135171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Qualls, R.G., Richardson, C.J. 2003Factors controlling concentration, exportand decomposition of dissolved organic nutrients in the Everglades of FloridaBiogeochemistry62197229CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Rueth, H.M., Baron, J.S. 2002Differences in Englemann spruce forest biogeochemistry east and west of the Continental Divide in ColoradoUSAEcosystems54557CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Seitzinger, S.P., Sanders, R.W. 1997Contribution of dissolved organic nitrogen from rivers to estuarine eutrophicationMarine Ecol. Prog. Ser.159112Google Scholar
  58. Seitzinger, S.P., Sanders, R.W. 1999Atmospheric inputs of dissolved organic nitrogen stimulate estuarine bacteria and phytoplanktonLimnol. Oceanogr.44721730Google Scholar
  59. Seitzinger, S.P., Sanders, R.W., Styles, R 2002Bioavailability of DON from natural and anthropogenic sources to estuarine phytoplanktonLimnol. Oceanogr.47353366Google Scholar
  60. Sickman, J.O., Melack, J.M., Stoddard, J.L. 2002Regional analysis of inorganic nitrogen yield and retention in high-elevation ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky MountainsBiogeochemistry57341374CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Sollins, P., McCorison, F.M. 1981Nitrogen and carbon solution chemistry of an old growth coniferous forest watershed before and after cuttingWater Resour. Res.1714091418Google Scholar
  62. Stepanauskas, R., Edling, H., Tranvik, L.J. 1999Differential dissolved organic nitrogen availability and bacterial aminopeptidase activity in limnic and marine watersMicrob. Ecol.38264272CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Stepanauskas, R., Jorgenson, N.O.G., Eigaard, O.R., Zvikas, A., Tranvik, L.J., Leonardson, L. 2002Summer inputs of riverine nutrients to the Baltic Sea: bioavailability and eutrophication relevanceEcol. Monogr.72579597Google Scholar
  64. Stepanauskas, R., Laudon, H., Jorgenson, N.O.G. 2000High DON bioavailability in boreal streams during a spring floodLimnol. Oceanogr.4512981307Google Scholar
  65. Thurman, E.M., Malcolm, R.L. 1981Preparative isolation of aquatic humic substancesEnviron. Sci. Technol.15463466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Vahatalo, A.V., Salonen, K., Munster, U., Jarvinen, M., Wetzel, R.G. 2003Photochemical transformation of allocthonous organic matter provides bioavailable nutrients in a humic lakeArch. Hydrobiol.156287314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Valderrama, J.C. 1981The simultaneous analysis of total nitrogen and phosphorus in natural watersMarine Chem.10109122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Vanderbilt, K.L., Lajtha, K., Swanson, F.J. 2003Biogeochemistry of unpolluted forested watersheds in the Oregon Cascades: temporal patterns of precipitation and stream nitrogen fluxesBiogeochemistry6287117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Vitousek, P.M., Hedin, L.O., Matson, P.A., Fownes, J.H., Neff, J.C. 1998Within-system element cycles, input-output budgets and nutrient limitationGroffman, P.M.Pace, M.L. eds. Successes, Limitation and Frontiers in Ecosystem ScienceSpringerNew York432451Google Scholar
  70. Wiegner, T.N., Seitzinger, S.P. 2001Photochemical and microbial degradation of external dissolved organic matter inputs to riversAquat. Microb. Ecol.242740Google Scholar
  71. Wikner, J., Cuadros, R., Jansson, M. 1999Differences in consumption of allocthonous DOC under limnic and estuarine conditions in a watershedAquat. Microb. Ecol.17289299Google Scholar
  72. Williams, M.W., Baron, J.S., Caine, N., Sommerfeld, R., Sanford, R. 1996Nitrogen saturation in the Rocky MountainsEnviron. Sci. Technol.30640646CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wolfe, A.P., Kaushal, S.S., Fulton, J.R., McKnight, D.M. 2002Spectrofluorescence of sediment humic substances and historical changes of lacustrine organic matter provenance in response to atmospheric nutrient enrichmentEnviron. Sci. Technol.3632173223CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  74. Zogg, G.P., Zak, D.R., Pregitzer, K.S., Burton, A.J. 2000Microbial immobilization and the retention of anthropogenic nitrate in a northern hardwood forestEcology8118561866Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Limnology, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental SciencesUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  3. 3.Institute of Ecosystem StudiesMillbrookUSA

Personalised recommendations