Assessing the impacts of land use on downstream water quality using a hydrologically sensitive area concept

Subhasis Giri, Zeyuan Qiu, Zhen Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Understanding the relationship between land use and water quality is essential to improve water quality through carefully managing landscape change. This study applies a linear mixed model at both watershed and hydrologically sensitive areas (HSAs) scales to assess such a relationship in 28 northcentral New Jersey watersheds located in a rapidly urbanizing region in the United States. Two models differ in terms of the geographic scope used to derive land use matrices that quantify land use conditions. The land use matrices at the watershed and HSAs scales represent the land use conditions in these watersheds and their HSAs, respectively. HSAs are the hydrological “hotspots” in a watershed that are prone to runoff generation during storm events. HSAs are derived using a soil topographic index (STI) that predicts hydrological sensitivity of a landscape based on a variable source area hydrology concept. The water quality indicators in these models are total nitrogen (TN), total phosphorus (TP) and total suspended solids (TSS) concentrations in streams observed at the watershed outlets. The modeling results suggest that presence of low density urban land, agricultural land and wetlands elevate while forest decreases TN, TP and/or TSS concentrations in streams. The watershed scale model tends to emphasize the role of agricultural lands in water quality degradation while the HSA scale model highlights the role of forest in water quality improvement. This study supports the hypothesis that even though HSAs are relatively smaller area compared to watershed, still the land uses within HSAs have similar impacts on downstream water quality as the land uses in entire watersheds, since both models have negligible differences in model evaluation parameters. Inclusion of HSAs brings an interesting perspective to understand the dynamic relationships between land use and water quality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-319
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
StatePublished - May 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


  • Hydrologically sensitivity areas
  • Land use matrix
  • Linear mixed model
  • Northcentral New Jersey
  • Soil topographic index
  • Water quality


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