Potential nitrogen and carbon processing in a landscape rich in milldam legacy sediments

Julie N. Weitzman, Kenneth J. Forshay, Jason P. Kaye, Paul M. Mayer, Jason C. Koval, Robert C. Walter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Recent identification of the widespread distribution of legacy sediments deposited in historic mill ponds has increased concern regarding their role in controlling land-water nutrient transfers in the mid-Atlantic region of the US. At Big Spring Run in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, legacy sediments now overlay a buried relict hydric soil (a former wetland soil). We compared C and N processing in legacy sediment to upland soils to identify soil zones that may be sources or sinks for N transported toward streams. We hypothesized that legacy sediments would have high nitrification rates (due to recent agricultural N inputs), while relict hydric soils buried beneath the legacy sediments would be N sinks revealed via negative net nitrification and/or positive denitrification (because the buried former wetland soils are C rich but low in O2). Potential net nitrification ranged from 9.2 to 77.9 g m-2 year-1 and potential C mineralization ranged from 223 to 1,737 g m-2 year-1, with the highest rates in surface soils for both legacy sediments and uplands. Potential denitrification ranged from 0.37 to 21.72 g m-2 year-1, with the buried relict hydric soils denitrifying an average of 6.2 g m-2 year-1. Contrary to our hypothesis, relict hydric layers did not have negative potential nitrification or high positive potential denitrification rates, in part because microbial activity was low relative to surface soils, as indicated by low nitrifier population activity, low substrate induced respiration, and low exoenzyme activity. Despite high soil C concentrations, buried relict hydric soils do not provide the ecological services expected from a wetland soil. Thus, legacy sediments may dampen N removal pathways in buried relict hydric soils, while also acting as substantial sources of NO3 - to waterways.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)337-357
Number of pages21
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Aug 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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