IWA Publishing

Snowmelt and its role in the hydrologic and nutrient budgets of prairie streams

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Small watersheds in the Canadian Prairies are characterized by seasonally disconnected hydrologic networks whereby stream channels are hydrologically connected during snowmelt but have disconnected reaches throughout the remainder of the year. Snowmelt is the most significant hydrological event in the Canadian Prairies, yet few studies have investigated the role of snowmelt in the nutrient budget of prairie streams. We quantified hydrologic and nutrient dynamics during snowmelt for ten agricultural subwatersheds distributed along a gradient of human activity in the Red River Valley, Canada, to evaluate the timing of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) export. Elevated concentrations of total P (TP) and total N (TN) were observed during the snowmelt peak, with maximum concentrations reaching 3.23 mg TP L−1 and 18.50 mg TN L−1. Dissolved P and N dominated the total nutrient pool throughout snowmelt, likely due to reduced erosion and sediment transport resulting from the combination of the flat topography, frozen soil and stream banks, and gradual snow cover melt. Significant correlations were observed between snowmelt N load (r = 0.91; p < 0.05) and both agricultural land cover and fertilizer usage, with a weaker correlation between snowmelt P load (r = 0.81; p < 0.05) and agricultural area. Our results showed that snowmelt plays a key role in nutrient export to prairie aquatic ecosystems and this may have serious impacts on downstream ecosystems. Land use management practices need to consider the snowmelt period to control nutrient loads to Lake Winnipeg and other waterbodies in the Great Plains.

Keywords: Canadian Prairies, export, nitrogen, nutrients, phosphorus, snowmelt, streams

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