Can small stream solute–land cover relationships predict river solute concentrations?

Jackson R. Webster, C. Rhett Jackson, Jennifer D. Knoepp, Paul V. Bolstad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most studies of land use effects on solute concentrations in streams have focused on smaller streams with watersheds dominated by a single land-use type. Using land cover as a proxy for land use, the objective of this study was to determine whether the hydrologically-driven response of solutes to land use in small streams could be scaled up to predict concentrations in larger receiving streams and rivers in the rural area of the Little Tennessee River basin. We measured concentrations of typically limiting nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus), abundant anions (chloride, sulfate), and base cations in 17 small streams and four larger river sites. In the small streams, total solute concentration was strongly related to land cover -- highest in streams with developed watersheds, lowest in streams with forested watersheds, and streams with agricultural watersheds were in between. In general, the best predictor of solute concentrations in the small streams was forest land cover. We then predicted solute concentrations for the river sites based on the solute--land cover relationships of the small streams using multiple linear regressions. Results were mixed -- some of the predicted river concentrations were close to measured values, others were greater or less than measured concentrations. In general, river concentrations did not scale with land cover-solute relationships found in small tributaries. Measured values of nitrogen solutes in the river sites were greater than predicted, perhaps due to the presence of waste water treatment plants. We attributed other differences between measured and predicted river concentrations to the heterogeneous geochemistry of this mountainous region. The combined complexity of hydrology, geochemistry, and human land-use of this mountainous region make it difficult to scale up from small streams to larger river basins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere14812
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the many people at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory who helped with the data collection and sample analysis, especially Jason Love, Katie Bower, Cindi Brown, Sheila Gregory, and Carol Harper. This work was supported by National Science Foundation grants DEB0823293, DEB9632854, and DEB0218001 to the Coweeta Long‐Term Ecological Research program and by USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station, Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Authors. Hydrological Processes published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. This article has been contributed to by U.S. Government employees and their work is in the public domain in the USA.


  • geochemistry
  • land use
  • rural
  • solutes
  • stream
  • watershed


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