A catchment modelling approach integrating surface and groundwater processes, land use and distribution of nutrients : Elimbah Creek, southeast Queensland

Labadz, Martin (2012) A catchment modelling approach integrating surface and groundwater processes, land use and distribution of nutrients : Elimbah Creek, southeast Queensland. PhD by Publication, Queensland University of Technology.


As the world’s population is growing, so is the demand for agricultural products. However, natural nitrogen (N) fixation and phosphorus (P) availability cannot sustain the rising agricultural production, thus, the application of N and P fertilisers as additional nutrient sources is common. It is those anthropogenic activities that can contribute high amounts of organic and inorganic nutrients to both surface and groundwaters resulting in degradation of water quality and a possible reduction of aquatic life. In addition, runoff and sewage from urban and residential areas can contain high amounts of inorganic and organic nutrients which may also affect water quality. For example, blooms of the cyanobacterium Lyngbya majuscula along the coastline of southeast Queensland are an indicator of at least short term decreases of water quality. Although Australian catchments, including those with intensive forms of land use, show in general a low export of nutrients compared to North American and European catchments, certain land use practices may still have a detrimental effect on the coastal environment.

Numerous studies are reported on nutrient cycling and associated processes on a catchment scale in the Northern Hemisphere. Comparable studies in Australia, in particular in subtropical regions are, however, limited and there is a paucity in the data, in particular for inorganic and organic forms of nitrogen and phosphorus; these nutrients are important limiting factors in surface waters to promote algal blooms. Therefore, the monitoring of N and P and understanding the sources and pathways of these nutrients within a catchment is important in coastal zone management. Although Australia is the driest continent, in subtropical regions such as southeast Queensland, rainfall patterns have a significant effect on runoff and thus the nutrient cycle at a catchment scale. Increasingly, these rainfall patterns are becoming variable. The monitoring of these climatic conditions and the hydrological response of agricultural catchments is therefore also important to reduce the anthropogenic effects on surface and groundwater quality.

This study consists of an integrated hydrological–hydrochemical approach that assesses N and P in an environment with multiple land uses. The main aim is to determine the nutrient cycle within a representative coastal catchment in southeast Queensland, the Elimbah Creek catchment. In particular, the investigation confirms the influence associated with forestry and agriculture on N and P forms, sources, distribution and fate in the surface and groundwaters of this subtropical setting. In addition, the study determines whether N and P are subject to transport into the adjacent estuary and thus into the marine environment; also considered is the effect of local topography, soils and geology on N and P sources and distribution. The thesis is structured on four components individually reported.

The first paper determines the controls of catchment settings and processes on stream water, riverbank sediment, and shallow groundwater N and P concentrations, in particular during the extended dry conditions that were encountered during the study. Temporal and spatial factors such as seasonal changes, soil character, land use and catchment morphology are considered as well as their effect on controls over distributions of N and P in surface waters and associated groundwater. A total number of 30 surface and 13 shallow groundwater sampling sites were established throughout the catchment to represent dominant soil types and the land use upstream of each sampling location. Sampling comprises five rounds and was conducted over one year between October 2008 and November 2009. Surface water and groundwater samples were analysed for all major dissolved inorganic forms of N and for total N. Phosphorus was determined in the form of dissolved reactive P (predominantly orthophosphate) and total P. In addition, extracts of stream bank sediments and soil grab samples were analysed for these N and P species. Findings show that major storm events, in particular after long periods of drought conditions, are the driving force of N cycling. This is expressed by higher inorganic N concentrations in the agricultural subcatchment compared to the forested subcatchment. Nitrate N is the dominant inorganic form of N in both the surface and groundwaters and values are significantly higher in the groundwaters. Concentrations in the surface water range from 0.03 to 0.34 mg N L..1; organic N concentrations are considerably higher (average range: 0.33 to 0.85 mg N L..1), in particular in the forested subcatchment. Average NO3-N in the groundwater has a range of 0.39 to 2.08 mg N L..1, and organic N averages between 0.07 and 0.3 mg N L..1. The stream bank sediments are dominated by organic N (range: 0.53 to 0.65 mg N L..1), and the dominant inorganic form of N is NH4-N with values ranging between 0.38 and 0.41 mg N L..1. Topography and soils, however, were not to have a significant effect on N and P concentrations in waters. Detectable phosphorus in the surface and groundwaters of the catchment is limited to several locations typically in the proximity of areas with intensive animal use; in soil and sediments, P is negligible.

In the second paper, the stable isotopes of N (14N/15N) and H2O (16O/18O and 2H/H) in surface and groundwaters are used to identify sources of dissolved inorganic and organic N in these waters, and to determine their pathways within the catchment; specific emphasis is placed on the relation of forestry and agriculture. Forestry is predominantly concentrated in the northern subcatchment (Beerburrum Creek) while agriculture is mainly found in the southern subcatchment (Six Mile Creek). Results show that agriculture (horticulture, crops, grazing) is the main source of inorganic N in the surface waters of the agricultural subcatchment, and their isotopic signature shows a close link to evaporation processes that may occur during water storage in farm dams that are used for irrigation. Groundwaters are subject to denitrification processes that may result in reduced dissolved inorganic N concentrations. Soil organic matter delivers most of the inorganic N to the surface water in the forested subcatchment. Here, precipitation and subsequently runoff is the main source of the surface waters. Groundwater in this area is affected by agricultural processes. The findings also show that the catchment can attenuate the effects of anthropogenic land use on surface water quality. Riparian strips of natural remnant vegetation, commonly 50 to 100 m in width, act as buffer zones along the drainage lines in the catchment and remove inorganic N from the soil water before it enters the creek. These riparian buffer zones are common in most agricultural catchments of southeast Queensland and are indicated to reduce the impact of agriculture on stream water quality and subsequently on the estuary and marine environments. This reduction is expressed by a significant decrease in DIN concentrations from 1.6 mg N L..1 to 0.09 mg N L..1, and a decrease in the �15N signatures from upstream surface water locations downstream to the outlet of the agricultural subcatchment. Further testing is, however, necessary to confirm these processes. Most importantly, the amount of N that is transported to the adjacent estuary is shown to be negligible.

The third and fourth components of the thesis use a hydrological catchment model approach to determine the water balance of the Elimbah Creek catchment. The model is then used to simulate the effects of land use on the water balance and nutrient loads of the study area. The tool that is used is the internationally widely applied Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT). Knowledge about the water cycle of a catchment is imperative in nutrient studies as processes such as rainfall, surface runoff, soil infiltration and routing of water through the drainage system are the driving forces of the catchment nutrient cycle. Long-term information about discharge volumes of the creeks and rivers do, however, not exist for a number of agricultural catchments in southeast Queensland, and such information is necessary to calibrate and validate numerical models. Therefore, a two-step modelling approach was used to calibrate and validate parameters values from a near-by gauged reference catchment as starting values for the ungauged Elimbah Creek catchment. Transposing monthly calibrated and validated parameter values from the reference catchment to the ungauged catchment significantly improved model performance showing that the hydrological model of the catchment of interest is a strong predictor of the water water balance. The model efficiency coefficient EF shows that 94% of the simulated discharge matches the observed flow whereas only 54% of the observed streamflow was simulated by the SWAT model prior to using the validated values from the reference catchment. In addition, the hydrological model confirmed that total surface runoff contributes the majority of flow to the surface water in the catchment (65%). Only a small proportion of the water in the creek is contributed by total base-flow (35%). This finding supports the results of the stable isotopes 16O/18O and 2H/H, which show the main source of water in the creeks is either from local precipitation or irrigation waters delivered by surface runoff; a contribution from the groundwater (baseflow) to the creeks could not be identified using 16O/18O and 2H/H. In addition, the SWAT model calculated that around 68% of the rainfall occurring in the catchment is lost through evapotranspiration reflecting the prevailing long-term drought conditions that were observed prior and during the study. Stream discharge from the forested subcatchment was an order of magnitude lower than discharge from the agricultural Six Mile Creek subcatchment. A change in land use from forestry to agriculture did not significantly change the catchment water balance, however, nutrient loads increased considerably. Conversely, a simulated change from agriculture to forestry resulted in a significant decrease of nitrogen loads.

The findings of the thesis and the approach used are shown to be of value to catchment water quality monitoring on a wider scale, in particular the implications of mixed land use on nutrient forms, distributions and concentrations. The study confirms that in the tropics and subtropics the water balance is affected by extended dry periods and seasonal rainfall with intensive storm events. In particular, the comprehensive data set of inorganic and organic N and P forms in the surface and groundwaters of this subtropical setting acquired during the one year sampling program may be used in similar catchment hydrological studies where these detailed information is missing. Also, the study concludes that riparian buffer zones along the catchment drainage system attenuate the transport of nitrogen from agricultural sources in the surface water. Concentrations of N decreased from upstream to downstream locations and were negligible at the outlet of the catchment.

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ID Code: 60017
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD by Publication)
Supervisor: Cox, Malcolm, Grace, Peter, & Preda, Micaela
Keywords: nitrogen, phosphorus, nitrate, ammonium, organic N, TKN, nutrients, rainfall variability, land use, forestry, agriculture, residential, freshwater systems, droughts, stable isotopes, water balance, SWAT, calibration, ungauged catchments, nonparametric data, self organising maps, Australia, Queensland, subtropical, coastal catchment
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Science & Engineering Faculty
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 15 May 2013 03:13
Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015 04:45

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