Solute fluxes through restored prairie and intensively managed critical zones in Nebraska and Iowa

Ashlee L. Dere, Andrew W. Miller, Amy M. Hemje, Sara K. Parcher, Courtney A. Capalli, E. Arthur Bettis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Agricultural activities in the Midwestern United States have potentially altered geochemical fluxes within the critical zone (CZ) compared to native prairie systems that previously dominated the region. To quantify the impact of agricultural land use on soil and stream solute behavior, we are studying two watersheds in the region: Glacier Creek Preserve (GCP) in eastern Nebraska and the Intensively Managed Landscapes Critical Zone Observatory (IML-CZO) in eastern Iowa. Both watersheds were initially under agricultural land use for over 100 years, but part of each watershed was restored to prairie 20 – 50 years ago. Soils at both sites formed in thick Peoria loess (≥6 m) overlying glacial till with similar mean annual temperatures (∼10°C) but slightly higher mean annual precipitation in Iowa (89 cm) compared to Nebraska (78 cm). At both sites, soil pore water and precipitation were collected every 2–4 weeks to measure anions, cations, and alkalinity; stream waters draining either restored prairie or agriculture were sampled similarly in Nebraska. Both soil moisture content and electrical conductivity were consistently higher in the upper one meter of agricultural soils compared to prairie soils in Nebraska, implying slower drainage and higher solute concentrations in the agricultural soils. At both sites, soil pore water Ca2+ and Mg2+ concentrations and annual fluxes were significantly higher in agricultural soils compared to restored prairie. Conversely, streams draining restored prairie have significantly higher Ca2+ and Mg2+ concentrations than the agricultural streams. Fluxes from agricultural streams, however, were higher than the prairie, pointing to a potential dilution effect of runoff from the agricultural land use. These observations lead to a conceptual model where deeply infiltrating water in restored prairie soils interacts with minerals present deeper in the soil before reaching the stream whereas in agricultural soils water does not infiltrate as deeply and thus experiences more shallow flowpaths to the stream. Furthermore, changes in geochemical and hydrologic fluxes have been realized in just a few decades since switching land use from agriculture to prairie. Thus, intensive agricultural land use may alter soil function and solute transport to streams compared to critical zones hosting tallgrass prairie vegetation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number24
JournalFrontiers in Earth Science
StatePublished - Feb 26 2019


  • Agriculture
  • Discharge
  • Loess
  • Soil pore water
  • Stream
  • Water quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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