Effects of mountain tea plantations on nutrient cycling at upstream watersheds
Abstract. The expansion of agriculture to rugged mountains can exacerbate negative impacts of agricultural activities on ecosystem function. In this study, we monitored streamwater and rainfall chemistry of mountain watersheds at the Feitsui Reservoir Watershed in northern Taiwan to examine the effects of agriculture on watershed nutrient cycling. We found that the greater the proportion of tea plantation cover, the higher the concentrations of fertilizer-associated ions (NO3−, K+) in streamwater of the four mountain watersheds examined; on the other hand, the concentrations of the ions that are rich in soils (SO42−, Ca2+, Mg2+) did not increase with the proportion of tea plantation cover, suggesting that agriculture enriched fertilizer-associated nutrients in streamwater. Of the two watersheds for which rainfall chemistry was available, the one with higher proportion of tea plantation cover had higher concentrations of ions in rainfall and retained less nitrogen in proportion to input compared to the more pristine watershed, suggesting that agriculture can influence atmospheric deposition of nutrients and a system's ability to retain nutrients. As expected, we found that a forested watershed downstream of agricultural activities can dilute the concentrations of NO3− in streamwater by more than 70 %, indicating that such a landscape configuration helps mitigate nutrient enrichment in aquatic systems even for watersheds with steep topography. We estimated that tea plantation at our study site contributed approximately 450 kg ha−1 yr−1 of NO3-N via streamwater, an order of magnitude greater than previously reported for agricultural lands around the globe, which can only be matched by areas under intense fertilizer use. Furthermore, we constructed watershed N fluxes to show that excessive leaching of N, and additional loss to the atmosphere via volatilization and denitrification can occur under intense fertilizer use. In summary, this study demonstrated the pervasive impacts of agricultural activities, especially excessive fertilization, on ecosystem nutrient cycling at mountain watersheds.