Effects of Urbanization on Stream Ecosystems

Hydrologic Changes in Urban Streams and Their Ecological Significance

Christopher P. Konrad, and Derek B. Booth

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781888569735.ch10

Abstract.—Urban development modifies the production and delivery of runoff to streams and the resulting rate, volume, and timing of streamflow. Given that streamflow demonstrably influences the structure and composition of lotic communities, we have identified four hydrologic changes resulting from urban development that are potentially significant to stream ecosystems: increased frequency of high flows, redistribution of water from base flow to storm flow, increased daily variation in streamflow, and reduction in low flow. Previous investigations of streamflow patterns and biological assemblages provide a scale of ecological significance for each type of streamflow pattern. The scales establish the magnitude of changes in streamflow patterns that could be expected to produce biological responses in streams. Long-term streamflow records from eight streams in urbanizing areas of the United States and five additional reference streams, where land use has been relatively stable, were analyzed to assess if streamflow patterns were modified by urban development to an extent that a biological response could be expected and whether climate patterns could account for equivalent hydrologic variation in the reference streams. Changes in each type of streamflow pattern were evident in some but not all of the urban streams and were nearly absent in the reference streams. Given these results, hydrologic changes are likely significant to urban stream ecosystems, but the significance depends on the stream’s physiographic context and spatial and temporal patterns of urban development. In urban streams with substantially altered hydrology, short-term goals for urban stream rehabilitation may be limited because of the difficulty and expense of restoring hydrologic processes in an urban landscape. The ecological benefits of improving physical habitat and water quality may be tempered by persistent effects of altered streamflow. In the end, the hydrologic effects of urban development must be addressed for restoration of urban streams.