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Circular 1373

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Effects of Urban Development on Stream Ecosystems in Nine Metropolitan Study Areas Across the United States

By James F. Coles, Gerard McMahon, Amanda H. Bell, Larry R. Brown, Faith A. Fitzpatrick, Barbara C. Scudder Eikenberry, Michael D. Woodside, Thomas F. Cuffney, Wade L. Bryant, Karen Cappiella, Lisa Fraley-McNeal, and William P. Stack

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Urban development is an important agent of environmental change in the United States. The urban footprint on the American landscape has expanded during a century and a half of almost continuous development. Eighty percent of Americans now live in metropolitan areas, and the advantages and challenges of living in these developed areas—convenience, congestion, employment, pollution—are part of the day-to-day realities of most Americans. Nowhere are the environmental changes associated with urban development more evident than in urban streams. Contaminants, habitat destruction, and increasing streamflow flashiness resulting from urban development have been associated with the disruption of biological communities, particularly the loss of sensitive aquatic species. Every stream is connected downstream to larger water bodies, including rivers, reservoirs, and ultimately coastal waters. Inputs of chemical contaminants or sediments at any point along the stream can cause degradation downstream with adverse effects on biological communities and on economically valuable resources, such as fisheries and tourism.

In response to general concerns about the degradation of urban streams, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted a national-scale, scientific investigation of the effects of urban development on stream ecosystems. Nine metropolitan study areas of the United States were selected—Portland, Oregon; Salt Lake City, Utah; Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; Denver, Colorado; Dallas, Texas; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The studies were conducted in Salt Lake City, Birmingham, and Boston in 1999–2000; in Atlanta, Raleigh, and Denver in 2002–2003; and in Portland, Dallas, and Milwaukee in 2003–2004.

The comprehensive investigation of all nine studies focused on three broad questions of interest to decision makers:

  1. What are the primary effects of urban development on stream ecosystems?
  2. How do the effects of urban development on stream ecosystems vary regionally across the country?
  3. Which urban-related stressors are most closely linked to biological community degradation, and how can multiple stressors be managed to protect stream health as a watershed becomes increasingly urbanized?

First posted November 14, 2012

For additional information contact:
Chief, National Water-Quality Assessment Program
U.S. Geological Survey
413 National Center
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, VA 20192

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Suggested citation:

Coles, J.F., McMahon, Gerard, Bell, A.H., Brown, L.R., Fitzpatrick, F.A., Scudder Eikenberry, B.C., Woodside, M.D., Cuffney, T.F., Bryant, W.L., Cappiella, Karen, Fraley-McNeal, Lisa, and Stack, W.P., 2012, Effects of urban development on stream ecosystems in nine metropolitan study areas across the United States: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1373, 138 p., available at


Chapter 1—Findings and Management Implications

Chapter 2—Background—Understanding Influences of Urban Development on Stream Ecosystems

Chapter 3—USGS Approach to Assessing the Effects of Urban Development on Stream Ecosystems

Chapter 4—Responses of Stream Hydrology, Habitat, and Chemistry to Urban Development

Chapter 5—The Response of Biological Communities to Urban Development

Chapter 6—Understanding Complexity in Stream Ecosystem Response to Urban Development

Chapter 7—Key Challenges in Managing Urban Stream Ecosystems

References Cited


Appendix 1A—Study Watersheds in Nine Metropolitan Areas Used in the Effects of Urban Development on Stream Ecosystems Study

Appendix 1B—Characteristics of Nine Metropolitan Study Areas

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