Riparian wetland rehabilitation and beaver re-colonisation impacts on hydrological processes and water quality in a lowland agricultural catchment

Aaron Smith* (Corresponding Author), Doerthe Tetzlaff, Jörg Gelbrecht, Lukas Kleine, Chris Soulsby

*Corresponding author for this work

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Quantifying the catchment water balance and the characterization of its water quality changes are effective tools for establishing the response of catchments to shifting land management practices. Here we assess long-term hydrological partitioning and stream water chemistry over a 30-year period in a rural mixed land use catchment in northern Germany undergoing riparian wetlands and widespread re-colonisation by beavers (Castor fiber) along the river network. We used long-term spatially distributed stream discharge, groundwater levels and surface water quality data with a simple monthly water balance model, changes in the variability in discharge measurements, and statistical analysis of spatio-temporal changes in stream water quality to assess long-term changes. Water balance estimates indicated high proportions of evapotranspiration loss (~90% of total precipitation) and relatively low groundwater recharge (<5% of total precipitation) prior to riparian rehabilitation in 2000. Increasing groundwater levels from 2000-2017 and the relatively linear nature of the catchment storage – discharge relationship, indicate a gradual increase in groundwater recharge (buts still <10% of total precipitation). Wetland rehabilitation, greatly enhanced by increasing beaver populations, resulted in longer water transit times in the stream network, less linear storage-discharge relationship and a loss of daily stream variability, increased DOC concentrations, isotopic evaporative enrichment downstream, and moderated stream temperatures. There was limited long-term water quality improvements from wetland rehabilitation on either nitrate or total phosphorus concentrations, with unchanged seasonal summer and winter peak concentrations for phosphorus and nitrate, respectively. This likely reflects the long-term legacy of fertilizer use on nutrient reservoirs in the catchment’s soils, aquifers, and stream network. These long-term changes in hydrology and stream chemistry resulting from riparian rehabilitation and changes in agricultural management practices provide invaluable insights into catchment functioning and an evidence base for future planning in relation to long-term climatic changes.
Original languageEnglish
Article number134302
Number of pages14
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date7 Sep 2019
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2020


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