Headwater ecosystems may have a limited threshold for retaining and removing nutrients delivered by certain types of land use. Nitrogen enrichment was studied in a Rocky Mountain watershed undergoing rapid expansion of population and residential development. Study sites were located along a 30-km transect from the headwaters of the Blue River to Lake Dillon, a major source of drinking water for Denver, Colorado. Ground water in residential areas with septic systems showed high concentrations of nitrate-N (4.96 6 1.22 mg/L, mean 6 SE), and approximately 40% of wells contained nitrate with d15N values in the range of wastewater. Concentrations of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) in tributaries with residential development peaked during spring snowmelt as concentrations of DIN declined to below detection limits in undeveloped tributaries. Annual export of dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) was considerably lower in residential streams, suggesting a change in forms of N with development. The seasonal d15N of algae in residential streams was intermediate between baseline values from undeveloped streams and stream algae grown on wastewater. Between 19% and 23% of the annual N export from developed tributaries was derived from septic systems, as estimated from the d15N of algae. This range was similar to the amount of N export above background determined independently from mass-balance estimates. From a watershed perspective, total loading of N to the Blue River catchment from septic and municipal wastewater (2 kg·ha21·yr21) is currently less than the amount from background atmospheric sources (3 kg·ha21·yr21). Nonetheless, nitrate-N concentrations exceeded limits for safe drinking water in some groundwater wells (10 mg/L), residential streams showed elevated seasonal patterns of nitrate-N concentration and ratios of DIN to total dissolved phosphorus, and seasonal minimum concentrations of nitrate-N in Lake Dillon have increased exponentially to 80 mg/L over the last decade from an initial value near zero. Results suggest that isotopic ratios in autotrophs can be used to detect and quantify increases in N enrichment associated with land use change. The biotic capacity of headwater ecosystems to assimilate increases in inorganic N from residential development may be insufficient to prevent nitrogen enrichment over considerable distances and multiple aquatic ecosystems downstream.
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