2023 journal article

Forested watersheds provide the highest water quality among all land cover types, but the benefit of this ecosystem service depends on landscape context


By: P. Caldwell*, K. Martin  n, J. Vose n, J. Baker n , T. Warziniack *, J. Costanza* , G. Frey*, A. Nehra n, C. Mihiar*

co-author countries: United States of America πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ
author keywords: Land cover change; Water quality; Drinking water supply; Forest hydrology; Ecosystem services; SPARROW model
MeSH headings : Water Quality; Ecosystem; Drinking Water; Environmental Monitoring; Forests; Agriculture; Phosphorus; Rivers; Nitrogen / analysis
Source: Web Of Science
Added: June 5, 2023

Conversion of natural land cover can degrade water quality in water supply watersheds and increase treatment costs for Public Water Systems (PWSs), but there are few studies that have fully evaluated land cover and water quality relationships in mixed use watersheds across broad hydroclimatic settings. We related upstream land cover (forest, other natural land covers, development, and agriculture) to observed and modeled water quality across the southeastern US and specifically at 1746 PWS drinking water intake facilities. While there was considerable complexity and variability in the relationship between land cover and water quality, results suggest that Total Nitrogen (TN), Total Phosphorus (TP) and Suspended Sediment (SS) concentrations decrease significantly with increasing forest cover, and increase with increasing developed or agricultural cover. Catchments with dominant (>90 %) agricultural land cover had the greatest export rates for TN, TP, and SS based on SPARROW model estimates, followed by developed-dominant, then forest- and other-natural-dominant catchments. Variability in modeled TN, TP, and SS export rates by land cover type was driven by variability in natural background sources and catchment characteristics that affected water quality even in forest-dominated catchments. Both intake setting (i.e., run-of-river or reservoir) and upstream land cover were important determinants of water quality at PWS intakes. Of all PWS intakes, 15 % had high raw water quality, and 85 % of those were on reservoirs. Of the run-of-river intakes with high raw water quality, 75 % had at least 50 % forest land cover upstream. In addition, PWS intakes obtaining surface water supply from smaller upstream catchments may experience the largest losses of natural land cover based on projections of land cover in 2070. These results illustrate the complexity and variability in the relationship between land cover and water quality at broad scales, but also suggest that forest conservation can enhance the resilience of drinking water supplies.