Various adverse hydrologic effects on streams have been attributed to urban development and expanded impervious surface area, including increased high flows, decreased low flows, increased variability (commonly referred to as flashiness), nutrient enrichment, and increased dissolved solids concentrations. These effects are often observed through the use of urban-gradient studies, which compare hydrologic characteristics among watersheds with different levels of development. This technique is frequently applied when comparable prior data are not available for the watersheds of interest.
During 1966 - 1970, and again during 2001 - 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey collected a series of low-flow water-chemistry samples. Streamflow-gaging stations were operated throughout the period from 1966-2003 as part of ongoing monitoring operations. This study compares these two water-quality data sets; tests the streamflow data for trends in high flows, low flows, and flashiness; and correlates 2000 land use with water-quality and streamflow data collected during the 2001 - 2003 study.
Despite substantial change in land use during 1980 - 2000, with urban land covers replacing open space, forest, and agriculture, little evidence is found in the time-series data of alteration of the daily streamflow characteristics or nutrient enrichment in the study watersheds. However, a distinct shift is observable in chloride concentrations. Strong positive correlations exist across the urban gradient between development and increased peak flows as well as between development and increased flashiness. Correlations of water-quality data to development metrics show strong positive correlations with increased dissolved solids and salt content, as well as increased concentrations of fecal indicator bacteria (Eschericia coli).
This apparent contradiction may be caused by the differences in the changes measured in each analysis. The change-through-time approach describes change from a fixed starting point of approximately 1970; the gradient approach describes the cumulative effect of all change up to approximately 2000. These findings indicate that although urbanization in Oakland County results in most of the effects observed in the literature, as evidenced in the gradient approach, relatively few of the anticipated effects have been observed during the past three decades. This relative stability despite rapid land-cover change may be related to efforts to mitigate the effects of development and a general decrease in the density of new residential development. It may also be related to external factors such as climate variability and reduced atmospheric deposition of specific chemicals.