Thu. Oct 5th, 2023
    Understanding the Importance of Intermittent Headwater Streams in Water Supply

    Up to 35 percent of headwater streams, which make up the vast majority of global river miles, are intermittent. These streams go through wetting and drying cycles, which has made it difficult to fully comprehend their significance. However, researchers are now beginning to uncover the impact of these small, intermittent streams on larger bodies of water.

    A multi-state team, led by Arkansas researcher Shannon Speir, is working to understand how headwater streams can affect lakes and reservoirs that provide drinking water. The team will focus on studying the movement of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in Brush Creek, a tributary of the Beaver Lake watershed. The research is part of a larger study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, aiming to gain insight into the importance of headwater streams on surface water sources.

    Headwater streams, especially intermittent ones, have the potential to transport nutrients and sediments throughout the year. During heavy rains, these streams flow and carry nutrients downstream. However, an excess of nutrients can lead to eutrophication, causing overgrowth of plants and algae and reduced oxygen levels for fish. By understanding the impact of headwater streams on downstream water quality, researchers hope to determine the level of conservation required to bring about meaningful changes.

    To undertake this research, Speir’s team will receive a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). This two-year project will involve the deployment of new water quality sensors and data collection in the Beaver Lake watershed. The University of New Mexico’s Center for Advancement of Spatial Informatics Research and Education will assist in data analyses, with the headwaters of the Santa Fe River serving as the hub for this aspect of the project.

    The study will involve hydrologic modeling, simulating watershed reactions to understand water flow and other factors. Additionally, the researchers will examine each watershed’s spatial structure and monitor changes over time in response to precipitation and drought patterns. By gaining a better understanding of headwater processes, this study aims to enhance water quality monitoring and management, especially in the face of climate change.

    With its potential to inform water treatment facilities and improve predictions about water quantity and quality, this research holds promise for the effective conservation and management of water resources.

    – University of Arkansas
    – U.S. Department of Energy