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Evolving designer ecosystem sheds light on unintended consequences
Date:9/3/2008

ace flows, "not only increasing the spatial and temporal availability of water, but having the unintended effect of increasing the flux of NO3 through urban waterways by returning nitrogen leached from historic fertilizer applications to surface flows."

One concern is the potential impact on riparian species, the "integrity of native ecosystems and the continued delivery of goods and services from these ecosystems."

Streams in deserts are often overlooked in their importance because of their ephemeral nature; however, streams in general have been shown to be critical to the removal of excess nitrogen from agricultural fields and waste water run-off from urban areas. Denitrification, a bacterially-mediated process, converts nitrate to nitrogen gas, which then is released harmlessly to the atmosphere. High nitrogen loads from urban areas can overwhelm streams' capacity to remove nitrates and the resulting pollution of downstream rivers has been linked to the proliferation of coastal dead zones.

"We were surprised by how frequently the concentration of nitrate in surface waters was determined by the turning of a tap," Roach notes. "Because the groundwater below the greater Phoenix ecosystem contains a lot of nitrate, when groundwater wells are tuned on, the concentration of nitrate in the canals and streams receiving this water goes up. This nitrogen, in turn, can act as fertilizer, stimulating unwanted growth and producing changes in what the stream looks like that are independent of the decision to deliver more water to city lawns."

The present study underscores the importance of understanding the structure and function of natural streams and arid ecosystems and how they are impacted by human-altered systems, water distribution and design. The authors point out that the unintended consequences "must be carefully evaluated especially in arid and semiarid cities if managers are to have any hope of mitigating them."

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Contact: Margaret Coulombe
margaret.coulombe@asu.edu
480-727-8934
Arizona State University
Source:Eurekalert

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