Saltwater intrusion affects nutrient concentrations in soil porewater and surface waters of coastal habitats
Weissman, DS; Tully, KL
Coastal ecosystems are undergoing major biogeochemical shifts due to climate change and sea level rise. At the same time, agricultural fertilizer applications are increasing coastal nutrient inputs. In this study, we examine the potential impact of saltwater intrusion (SWI) on nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) concentrations in soil porewater and surface water of different habitats within the Chesapeake Bay estuary. Study sites are located along Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore and were monitored over three summers from 2016 to 2018. These sites encompass various habitats on the land-sea interface, consisting of healthy forests, intruded forests, abandoned fields, intruded fields, agricultural ditches, tidal creeks, and tidal salt marshes. Intruded fields were being actively farmed at the time of the study. Soil porewater and surface water grab samples were collected from the habitats and analyzed for electrical conductivity, pH, dissolved organic P (DOP), dissolved inorganic P in the form of soluble reactive P (SRP), dissolved inorganic N as ammonium-N (NH4-N), and total dissolved iron (TDFe). Electrical conductivity was greatest in the marshes (16.58 mS/cm averaged across all years) and did not significantly differ among intruded forests, intruded fields, and agricultural ditches. As a legacy of heavy fertilizer use, DOP concentrations exceeded 0.45 mg P/L in all habitats. Concentrations of inorganic N and P differed significantly by habitat. Concentrations of NH4-N were significantly higher in salt marsh soil porewater than in any other habitat measured. Overall, SRP concentrations were the highest in the soil porewater of intruded fields and marshes and in the surface water of agricultural ditches (0.30, 0.29, and 0.33 mg P/L averaged across all years, respectively). These concentrations greatly exceeded recommended U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nutrient pollution thresholds for the region. In its oxidized state, dissolved iron can bind to SRP and prevent it from becoming bioavailable. However, TDFe concentrations in the ditches, tidal creeks, and marshes were too low to adequately buffer against SRP loss to downstream areas. As SWI moves salts inland and increases hydrologic connectivity across coastal landscapes, it is important to consider the mechanisms through which nutrients may be released from coastal soils and their potential to impact downstream water quality.
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