Assessing Nitrogen-Saturation in a Seasonally Dry Chaparral Watershed: Limitations of Traditional Indicators of N-Saturation

Peter M. Homyak, James O. Sickman, Amy E. Miller, John M. Melack, Thomas Meixner, Joshua P. Schimel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


To evaluate nitrogen (N) saturation in xeric environments, we measured hydrologic N losses, soil N pools, and microbial processes, and developed an N-budget for a chaparral catchment (Sierra Nevada, California) exposed to atmospheric N inputs of approximately 8.5 kg N ha−1 y−1. Dual-isotopic techniques were used to trace the sources and processes controlling nitrate (NO3) losses. The majority of N inputs occurred as ammonium. At the onset of the wet season (November to April), we observed elevated streamwater NO3 concentrations (up to 520 µmol l−1), concomitant with the period of highest gaseous N-loss (up to 500 ng N m−2 s−1) and suggesting N-saturation. Stream NO3 δ15N and δ18O and soil N measurements indicate that nitrification controlled NO3 losses and that less than 1% of the loss was of atmospheric origin. During the late wet season, stream NO3 concentrations decreased (to <2 µmol l−1) as did gaseous N emissions, together suggesting conditions no longer indicative of N-saturation. We propose that chaparral catchments are temporarily N-saturated at ≤8.5 kg N ha−1 y−1, but that N-saturation may be difficult to reach in ecosystems that inherently leak N, thereby confounding the application of N-saturation indicators and annual N-budgets. We propose that activation of N sinks during the typically rainy winter growing season should be incorporated into the assessment of ecosystem response to N deposition. Specifically, the N-saturation status of chaparral may be better assessed by how rapidly catchments transition from N-loss to N-retention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1286-1305
Number of pages20
Issue number7
StatePublished - Nov 2014


  • Adenostoma fasciculatum
  • N deposition
  • N-budgets
  • N-saturation
  • chaparral
  • drylands
  • xeric landscapes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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