Vegetation characteristics control local sediment and nutrient retention on but not underneath vegetation in floodplain meadows

Lena Kretz*, Elisabeth Bondar-Kunze, Thomas Hein, Ronny Richter, Christiane Schulz-Zunkel, Carolin Seele-Dilbat, Fons van der Plas, Michael Vieweg, Christian Wirth

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Sediment and nutrient retention are essential ecosystem functions that floodplains provide and that improve river water quality. During floods, the floodplain vegetation retains sediment, which settles on plant surfaces and the soil underneath plants. Both sedimentation processes require that flow velocity is reduced, which may be caused by the topographic features and the vegetation structure of the floodplain. However, the relative importance of these two drivers and their key components have rarely been both quantified. In addition to topographic factors, we expect vegetation height and density, mean leaf size and pubescence, as well as species diversity of the floodplain vegetation to increase the floodplain's capacity for sedimentation. To test this, we measured sediment and nutrients (carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus) both on the vegetation itself and on sediment traps underneath the vegetation after a flood at 24 sites along the River Mulde (Germany). Additionally, we measured biotic and topographic predictor variables. Sedimentation on the vegetation surface was positively driven by plant biomass and the height variation of the vegetation, and decreased with the hydrological distance (total R2 = 0.56). Sedimentation underneath the vegetation was not driven by any vegetation characteristics but decreased with hydrological distance (total R2 = 0.42). Carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus content in the sediment on the traps increased with the total amount of sediment (total R2 = 0.64, 0.62 and 0.84, respectively), while C, N and P on the vegetation additionally increased with hydrological distance (total R2 = 0.80, 0.79 and 0.92, respectively). This offers the potential to promote sediment and especially nutrient retention via vegetation management, such as adapted mowing. The pronounced signal of the hydrological distance to the river emphasises the importance of a laterally connected floodplain with abandoned meanders and morphological depressions. Our study improves our understanding of the locations where floodplain management has its most significant impact on sediment and nutrient retention to increase water purification processes.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0252694
JournalPLoS ONE
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2021


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