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Journal of Environmental Management 146 (2014) 164e178

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Modeling catchment nutrients and sediment loads to inform regional

management of water quality in coastal-marine ecosystems:
A comparison of two approaches
a, *

Jorge G. Alvarez-Romero
, Scott N. Wilkinson c, Robert L. Pressey a, Natalie C. Ban a, d,
a, e
Johnathan Kool , Jon Brodie b

Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia
Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWater), Catchment to Reef Research Group, James Cook University, Townsville,
QLD 4811, Australia
CSIRO Land and Water, GPO Box 1666 Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia
School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, PO Box 1700 STN CSC, Victoria, BC V8W 2Y2, Canada
Geoscience Australia, Environmental Geoscience Division, National Earth and Marine Observations Group, GPO Box 378 Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia

a r t i c l e i n f o

a b s t r a c t

Article history:
Received 12 December 2012
Received in revised form
23 June 2014
Accepted 5 July 2014
Available online 28 August 2014

Human-induced changes in ows of water, nutrients, and sediments have impacts on marine ecosystems. Quantifying these changes to systematically allocate management actions is a priority for
many areas worldwide. Modeling nutrient and sediment loads and contributions from subcatchments
can inform prioritization of management interventions to mitigate the impacts of land-based pollution on marine ecosystems. Among the catchment models appropriate for large-scale applications, NSPECT and SedNet have been used to prioritize areas for management of water quality in coastalmarine ecosystems. However, an assessment of their relative performance, parameterization, and
utility for regional-scale planning is needed. We examined how these considerations can inuence the
choice between the two models and the areas identied as priorities for management actions. We
assessed their application in selected catchments of the Gulf of California, where managing landbased threats to marine ecosystems is a priority. We found important differences in performance
between models. SedNet consistently estimated spatial variations in runoff with higher accuracy than
N-SPECT and modeled suspended sediment (TSS) loads mostly within the range of variation in
observed loads. N-SPECT overestimated TSS loads by orders of magnitude when using the spatiallydistributed sediment delivery ratio (SDR), but outperformed SedNet when using a calibrated SDR.
Differences in subcatchments' contribution to pollutant loads were principally due to explicit representation of sediment sinks and particulate nutrients by SedNet. Improving the oodplain extent
model, and constraining erosion estimates by local data including gully erosion in SedNet, would
improve results of this model and help identify effective management responses. Differences between
models in the patterns of modeled pollutant supply were modest, but signicantly inuenced the
prioritization of subcatchments for management.
2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Catchment management
Water quality
Integrated land-sea planning
Marine conservation
Land-based pollution
Systematic conservation planning

1. Introduction
Human-induced changes in ows of nutrients, sediments, and
fresh water are major threats to coastal and marine ecosystems

* Corresponding author. Tel.: 61 07 4781 6517; fax: 61 07 4781 6722.

E-mail addresses:, jorge.alvarezromero@jcu. (J.G. Alvarez-Romero), (S.N. Wilkinson), bob. (R.L. Pressey), (N.C. Ban), Johnathan.Kool@ga. (J. Kool), (J. Brodie).
0301-4797/ 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

worldwide (Doney, 2010; Tilman et al., 2001). Nutrient enrichment

of coastal and marine waters associated with agricultural fertilizers
creates eutrophic and hypoxic or anoxic conditions that affect the
functioning of marine ecosystems and the status of biodiversity and
human health (Diaz and Rosenberg, 2008; Gabric and Bell, 1993).
Loads of sediments derived from land clearing, urbanization, and
agriculture have signicantly increased in many regions (Walling,
2006) and are a major threat to vulnerable ecosystems such as
coral reefs and seagrass beds (Cabaco et al., 2008; Maina et al.,
2011). In contrast, damming of rivers reduces the delivery of

J.G. Alvarez-Romero
et al. / Journal of Environmental Management 146 (2014) 164e178

river-borne sediment and nutrients to the sea (Walling, 2006), but

also has potential adverse effects, signicantly altering biogeochemical cycles and species composition in estuarine and marine
ecosystems (Humborg et al., 2000). Managing such land-based
threats is increasingly recognized as a crucial component of
maintaining healthy coastal and marine ecosystems globally
(Halpern et al., 2009; Maina et al., 2011).
Regional studies to identify and assess land-based threats to
coastal-marine ecosystems and to explore options to prevent or
mitigate these threats are urgently needed (e.g., Burke and Sugg,
2006; McKergow et al., 2005). Catchment models are powerful
tools to explore management options to improve water quality
(Walling et al., 2011) because they link sources of pollutants (e.g.,
sediment, nutrients) to affected areas and ecosystems. Furthermore, they facilitate identication of dominant processes associated with production and delivery of pollutants (Drewry et al.,
2006; Walling et al., 2011), and thus help to determine appropriate strategies to minimize downstream impacts. Applications
of catchment modeling for water-quality control include identifying erosion hotspots and estimating pollutant loads delivered to
the sea, which can then be incorporated into river plume models
to assess vulnerability of coastal-marine ecosystems to land
based threats (Alvarez-Romero
et al., 2013a; Burke and Sugg,
2006). Mapping major sources of pollutants within catchments
is thus needed to guide management to prevent or reduce
downstream impacts (Brodie et al., 2009). Management
actions include implementation of best practices in agriculture
and livestock management, water treatment, restoration of
riparian vegetation, protection of erosion-prone areas, and
gully stabilization (Thorburn et al., 2013; Wilkinson and Brodie,
Different modeling approaches have been used to estimate the
supply and delivery of sediment and nutrient loads, varying in
complexity, data requirements, and intended spatial and temporal
scales of application (see Borah and Bera, 2003; Merritt et al., 2003
for reviews on sediment and nutrient export models). For
modeling approaches to be relevant for identifying and assessing
land-based threats to coastal-marine ecosystems, several considerations are important: intended spatial and temporal scales, data
availability vs. data requirements of models (climatic, ow, in situ
water-quality sampling), existing technical expertise, and constraints on time and budget (Walling et al., 2011). Commonly, ow
data and water-quality sampling or monitoring are spatially
incomplete (covering only some parts of regions) and temporally
fragmented (spanning limited and/or different time periods in
different places). Data gaps, together with limited technical capacity, have constrained applications of more complex and realistic models applicable to regional scales.
Many modeling approaches have been developed for local, eldscale applications (Jetten et al., 1999), including event-based or
daily time-step models that are appropriate for short-term and
local management or ongoing water-quality monitoring (e.g.,
SWAT: Arnold and Fohrer, 2005; AGNPS: Young et al., 1989). These
models, however, are generally too data-intensive and detailed to
be applicable for large or multiple catchments. There are fewer
models appropriate for large-scale applications, although several
regional catchment models are pertinent (e.g., N-SPECT: Eslinger
et al., 2005; SWIM: Krysanova et al., 2005; SedNet: Wilkinson,
2008). SedNet and N-SPECT have been used in extensive applications to estimate end-of-river loads of sediment and nutrients, and
to target catchment management to minimize impacts of terrestrial
runoff on coastal ecosystems (e.g., N-SPECT e Mesoamerican Reef:
Burke and Sugg, 2006; Madagascar: Maina et al., 2012; SedNet e
Great Barrier Reef: McKergow et al., 2005). Both models are
appropriate to estimate long-term annual pollutant supply and


end-of-river loads and are also considered to be good compromises

in terms of model scope, data requirements, and performance.
The aim of this study is to compare two prominent regional
catchment models (N-SPECT: NOAA, 2008; SedNet: Wilkinson
et al., 2004) in terms of their performance, data requirements,
ease of implementation, and utility for regional-scale planning.
Data required to parameterize these models (as well as availability
of these data) vary between studies, as do their outputs and applications to identify specic areas for catchment management. Our
study thus aims to examine how these considerations can inuence
the choice between these models and the areas identied as priorities for management actions. Here we apply the models to
catchments draining to the Gulf of California, Mexico, where there
is an urgent need to study and incorporate land-based threats to

marine ecosystems into conservation planning (Alvarez-Romero
et al., 2013b). Our study area also has highly variable hydrological
and climatic conditions and limited data, making it a good test case
for many similar regions around the world. Previous studies have
examined nutrient enrichment of coastal waters in the Gulf of
California, but focused on irrigated agriculture (Ahrens et al., 2008),
and local scales (Christensen et al., 2006). Our study investigates
the use of catchment models to estimate runoff at a regional
(whole-of-catchment) scale. To our knowledge, our study is the
rst to apply these two models within the same region and assess
the differences in their outputs, and implications for management
2. Methods and data
We compared two models commonly used to prioritize areas for
management of water quality in coastal-marine ecosystems: NSPECT and SedNet/ANNEX (hereafter we refer to SedNet when
referring to both the base model used for modeling sediment
sources and transport and the ANNEX module employed when
modeling nutrients). We examined the differences in parameterization of the models, as well as the capabilities, performance, and
differences in their outputs in terms of pollutant supply patterns
and loads. We explore the differences in the allocation of management actions based on the outputs of each model and discuss
the potential consequences of management decisions, thus
providing criteria to guide managers when selecting and parameterizing a model.
2.1. Study area
The Gulf of California is a marine ecosystem globally recognized
for its rich and unique sea life, and is currently threatened by seaand land-based activities (Lluch-Cota et al., 2007). Human population density is relatively low in the catchments draining into the
Gulf of California, but is rapidly increasing, with associated increases in threats to the marine environment (Lluch-Cota et al.,
2007). While the western coast remains comparatively undisturbed, many eastern coastal areas are affected by land-based
threats, including agriculture, urbanization, aquaculture, and
ez-Osuna and Ruiz-Fern
damming (Lluch-Cota et al., 2007; Pa
2005). Existing studies in the region show that the impacts of landbased pollution can extend hundreds of kilometers from the coast
(Beman et al., 2005).
This study focuses on selected catchments draining into the Gulf
of California, including one of the most important agricultural regions in Mexico, the Yaqui Valley. The region stands out globally for
the intensive use of agrochemicals and fertilizer (Ahrens et al.,
2008). Effects of terrestrial runoff (e.g., associated with the intensive use of fertilizers) have been observed in offshore marine areas
within the Gulf (Beman et al., 2005). This is particularly relevant


J.G. Alvarez-Romero
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because multiple adjacent coastal-marine areas are considered

national conservation priorities (SEMARNAT, 2006). We selected
these catchments (Fig. 1) for several reasons: they comprise a variety of catchment sizes, from very large (e.g., Yaqui River and Mayo
River: 67,629 and 13,303 km2, respectively) to relatively small
coastal catchments (~50 km2), thus exemplifying the variety of
transport and depositional processes associated with catchment
size (Prosser et al., 2001); major rivers drain directly into marine
management units identied as high and very high priorities for
marine conservation (for further information regarding the

regional marine spatial planning exercise dening these marine

priorities see: SEMARNAT, 2006); there is a marked climatic variation and limited stream-gauge data (with drier areas being poorly
recorded) across the region, providing a test of the models' capabilities to represent variations in runoff; and the selected catchments include all vegetation types found within the total
watershed of the Gulf, which is important if a Gulf-wide study is to
be undertaken later. All these characteristics make the study region
a good case to test the application of these two approaches to
catchment modeling.

Fig. 1. Key features of the study area relevant to catchment modeling: A) Geographic location; B) The selected catchments comprising the study area, all draining into the Gulf of
California, also showing major reservoirs (used in SedNet to estimate changes in pollutant loads due to deposition of sediments and particulate nutrients), gauge stations, and
conservation priority level of adjacent marine management units; C) The strong gradient in dryness across the study area, as illustrated by the ratio of potential evapotranspiration
to precipitation (Eo/P) ratio; and D) Main vegetation cover/land use classes depicting degree of human modication of the landscape (e.g., conversion of natural areas to cropland
and pasture) potentially associated with spatial patterns of pollutant supply; the percentage of area occupied by each land use is indicated in brackets.

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2.2. Catchment model descriptions and data requirements

2.3. Model parameterization

N-SPECT and SedNet have common input datasets and similar

outputs but differ in some important aspects (Fig. 2). Both models
rely on spatial datasets and process conceptualizations. SedNet
outputs (including runoff, erosion, and nutrient supply) are lumped
within subcatchments. N-SPECT calculations are performed on a
cell-by-cell (raster grid pixel) basis, and are hence limited by the
coarse-resolution datasets used here.
Runoff calculations are one fundamental difference between NSPECT and SedNet. Runoff estimates in N-SPECT are based on the
USDA Soil Conservation Service Curve Number (CN) method, a
widely used method for estimating changes in rainfall runoff based
on the amount of precipitation and inltration, which is determined by land use and vegetation cover (hereafter land use), soil
type, surface retention, and impervious surface (USDA, 1986).
Although the method was originally designed for single-storm
events and small catchments, it can be scaled to nd average
annual runoff values (NOAA, 2008) and has been used in large-scale
or regional studies (e.g., Burke and Sugg, 2006). In contrast, SedNet
runoff calculations are based on regionalization of the spatial patterns in a water balance to predict mean annual runoff (and several
statistics of daily ow variability) following least-squares regressions based on observed ow data from gauge stations and
catchment characteristics, including annual rainfall and potential
evapotranspiration (Wilkinson et al., 2006).
Both models estimate soil loss from hillslope erosion based on
the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE), which estimates
annual soil loss based on a number of landscape characteristics (i.e.,
rainfall erosivity, soil erodibility, length-slope, and vegetation
cover) considered to be the main determinants of soil loss (Renard
et al., 1997). However, the sediment delivery ratios (SDRs) applied
by both models are quite different. SedNet uses a constant value
(default is 0.05) representing a priori knowledge of how erosion
estimates relate to sediment delivery. This can be a limitation of
SedNet when empirical data are unavailable or SDRs are highly
variable across the study region. In contrast, N-SPECT automatically
creates a spatially-distributed SDR based on an empirical relationship between drainage area (i.e., raster cell size), relief-length
ratio (calculated based on a digital elevation model and ow direction grid), and curve number (Williams, 1977). Additional
erosion processes incorporated by SedNet, but not N-SPECT, include
gully and river bank erosion.
Calculations of dissolved-nutrient supply in both N-SPECT and
SedNet follow the export or runoff coefcient approach (Johnes,
1996), which is based on mean runoff concentrations of particular pollutants and nutrients from different land uses. Mean runoff
concentrations are commonly referred to as event mean concentrations (EMC), but see Bartley et al. (2012) for a discussion on
differences in methods used to estimate these values. Event mean
concentration coefcients are combined with an estimated runoff
volume to calculate the pollutant supply. In addition, SedNet estimates the supply and export of particulate nutrients associated
with hillslope, gully, and bank erosion. For both sediment (suspended and bedload material) and particulate nutrients,
SedNet also represents reservoirs and oodplains as sinks within
the river network, and the amount of material actually exported
from the river network is net of the upstream sources and sinks.
Sinks (SedNet only) include loss of nutrients due to denitrication
in reservoirs and lakes, and accumulation or deposition of sediment in river oodplains, reservoirs and lakes, as well as deposition of in-channel bed material. N-SPECT does not consider
depositional or accumulation processes and thus its results
represent the supply of sediment and nutrients; this is a major
limitation of the model.

In this section, we describe parameterization of models,

including key data sources, processing and application for each
major step (as described in Fig. 2), indicating, when applicable, data
limitations, adjustments and whether these are used in both or
only one model. A detailed description of data preparation and
model settings are provided as Supplementary Material.
2.3.1. Catchment and stream network delineation
A digital elevation model (DEM) was used for delineating
streams and subcatchments and routing of pollutant transport. We
used a hydrologically-corrected version of the 30 m resolution
ASTER Global DEM (METI-NASA, 2009), which was resampled using
ESRI's ArcMap Spatial Analyst using bicubic interpolation to 240 m.
Similar resolutions have been used for other regional catchment
modeling exercises and provide a good balance between the extent
of the study (~600,000 km2) and matching of resolution to that of
other input data.
Both models delineate catchments automatically, based on userdened parameters to set the subcatchment size. For N-SPECT we
used the small subcatchment option, which resulted in 27 subcatchments with mean size of 3774 km2 (range 385 to 8652 km2).
For SedNet, we set the drainage area threshold at 40 km2, which
resulted in 1655 subcatchments, with a mean size of ~60 km2
(STD 39 km2). This ensured that most small coastal catchments
were included in the SedNet study area. Differences between the
stream network delineated using N-SPECT and SedNet were minimal, so we used the smaller subcatchments from SedNet to summarize the cell-based (i.e., local sources) results of N-SPECT.
2.3.2. Runoff and ow calculations
Annual precipitation (P) is used in both N-SPECT and SedNet to
calculate runoff. We used the global high-resolution (~1 km) annual
precipitation grid available online from WorldClim (http://, which provides a good resolution for regionalscale catchment modeling. The number of rain days, required by
N-SPECT to adjust the initial abstraction (i.e., water retained in
depressions, taken up by vegetation, and evaporated or inltrated),
was calculated based on the curve number equation (USDA, 1986).
The modeled runoff was very sensitive to this parameter, and it was
used to calibrate the model to observed (i.e., gauge data) runoff
(Supplementary Material).
The hydrologic soil group (HSG, i.e., the permeability or inltration capacity of the soils) is used by N-SPECT, in combination
with land use, to calculate curve numbers. We assigned HSG classes
based on the classication of soil units proposed by CNA (1987)
using a national map of soil units (INIFAP-CONABIO, 1995). When
two HSGs were assigned to a particular soil unit, the lowest
permeability (maximum runoff) class was used, as suggested by
Eslinger et al. (2005). Curve numbers (used in N-SPECT for runoff
calculations) are determined by combining the HSG and land use.
Higher curve number values are given for landscapes with more
impervious cover (e.g., surface soils with high clay content or lands
with sparser vegetation). We matched the land use classes of our
study area with the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) land
cover classes (USDA, 1986).
Potential evapotranspiration (PET) is used in SedNet to regionalize mean annual discharge. We used the Global Potential
Evapotranspiration (Global-PET) dataset (available from http:// For SedNet we also processed daily and
monthly records from data from gauge stations obtained from the
BANDAS hydrometric database (available from http://www.imta. Of the 19 gauges within the study area, only 11 (Fig. 1B)
had sufcient data for the model. Our criteria for sufciency were:


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J.G. Alvarez-Romero
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minimum number of years recorded was 20 years, or 15 if no other

stations were available around the area; and at least 10 years of
records should be uninterrupted. The temporality of gauge records
varied between stations, but was mostly constrained from the
1960s to early 2000s.
2.3.3. Dissolved pollutants and nutrients
Land use is employed to estimate the pollutant loads in both
models and also to calculate potential runoff (N-SPECT only). We
used the most up-to-date national-scale (1:250,000) land use
dataset available (Fig. 1D), which corresponds to the year 2000
(SEMARNAT-UNAM, 2002). This dataset was corrected for classication inconsistencies because different methods were used to
zquez et al., 2002).
create it (Vela
We calculated pollutant EMC based on a literature review on
reported EMC for similar vegetation types, mostly restricted to
North America, Australia, and South America. Values outside the
commonly observed ranges in EMC for each land use were
excluded. In particular, outlying values for total nitrogen from
forest land use in areas with high atmospheric deposition of nitrogen from industrial and high intensity agricultural areas were
excluded (there was no indication of high deposition in our study
area). Studies from North and South America (Lewis, 2002; Perakis
and Hedin, 2002), Australia (Bartley et al., 2012; Brodie and
Mitchell, 2005), and modeled data from the USA that accounted
for atmospheric deposition (Smith et al., 2003) provided guidance
for adjusting EMC values to remove the effect of deposition for
natural vegetation land use classes. Values for agricultural land
uses were divided into different classes to reect differences in
fertilizer use (see Supplementary Material for details and selected
EMC values).
2.3.4. Hillslope erosion
Both models use the RUSLE to estimate hillslope erosion based
on rainfall erosivity, soil erodibility, length-slope factor, and vegetation cover. Rainfall erosivity (R) was regionalized based on precipitation distribution and occurrence characteristics (duration,
intensity, number of events) according to historical records available from climatological stations (q.v., Diodato and Bellocchi, 2007;
Mikhailova et al., 1997). We used a 1 km annual precipitation grid
(Section 2.3.2) to estimate R based on the regionalized erosivity
map and regression equations (Table 1) proposed by Corte
(1991) and modied by SEMARNAT-UACH (2002). Six of the fours-Torres (1991) occur
teen erosivity regions described by Corte
within our study area.
Soil erodibility (K) was calculated using the method proposed
by FAO (1980), with soil data widely used for erosion studies in
Mexico (SEMARNAT-UACH, 2002). For soil units with many horizons (i.e., soil layers with different characteristics) we calculated a
weighted average of K for all horizons combined (q.v., FAO, 1980;
NOAA, 2008).
The length-slope (LS) factor is calculated automatically in NSPECT during the process of delineating catchments and stream
networks using ArcMap Spatial Analyst. We used the LS grid created
in N-SPECT as input for soil loss (RUSLE) calculations in SedNet.
Vegetation cover (C) is used to solve the soil loss equation to
estimate sheet-wash and rill erosion. We used N-SPECT default C
values as a reference, but adjusted the values based on a national
erosion study for Mexico (SEMARNAT-UACH, 2002). Due to large


Table 1
Regionalized regression equations used to calculate erosivity using annual precipitation (P).



3.45552$P 0.006470$P2
2.89594$P 0.002983$P2
6.68471$P 0.001680$P2
0.71508$P1. 30751
6.89375$P 0.000442$P2

sNumerals indicate the original codes assigned by Corte
Torres (1991) to the erosivity regions of Mexico.

variations in vegetation cover between different crops, we calculated an average value for all cropland classes based on the proportional area covered by dominant crops within the study area.
2.3.5. Gully erosion
Gullies are potentially important sources of suspended sediment. In some regions, soil losses from these features can exceed
those originating from hillslope erosion (e.g., Caitcheon et al.,
2012), thus signicantly contributing to sediment delivery to the
coast. Despite the signicance of this erosion process in some
areas of Mexico (e.g., Mexican Central Highlands: Duvert et al.,
2010; Gulf of Mexico's coast: Geissen et al., 2007), a national
study suggests that the contribution of gullies to sediment delivery is overall of lesser importance than hillslope erosion in our
study region (SEMARNAT-UACH, 2002). A local-scale examination
within our study area shows that hillslope erosion was about two
orders of magnitude higher than gully erosion (Descroix et al.,
2008). Another study covering comparable vegetation types in
the Pacic coast of Mexico also found little presence (and hence
contribution to sediment delivery) of gullies (Cotler and OrtegaLarrocea, 2006). However, the presence of gullies and their
contribution to soil loss and sediment transport could vary
signicantly across the region. Despite the capability of SedNet to
model gully erosion, spatial data on gully density across the study
area were not available; this is a limitation of our model application. N-SPECT does not model gully erosion.
2.3.6. River bank erosion
SedNet estimates bank erosion as being proportional to
bankfull stream power, but modies this relationship with two
factors: proportion of remnant riparian vegetation and oodplain
width. A riparian vegetation grid is used to estimate rates of bank
erosion based on the assumption that bank erosion decreases as
the proportion of woody riparian vegetation increases (averaged
over each subcatchment), while bank erosion is also reduced
exponentially where oodplain width is < 100 m, on the basis
that the availability of erodible soil becomes limiting under these
conditions (Wilkinson et al., 2004). We created a consistent riparian vegetation map across the study area in three steps. First,
we combined the polygons identied as riparian vegetation from
the three available maps (1976, 1993, and 2000) of the land-use
time series. We assigned polygons to riparian vegetation when
these were classied as riparian in the three maps or when they
were identied as riparian in any of the maps and as a different
natural vegetation type in the other(s). Second, we identied
riparian vegetation as the portions of tree-dominated land-use
classes (2000 maps only) within an 80 m buffer along the stream

Fig. 2. Major steps, inputs and outputs of N-SPECT and SedNet/ANNEX models. The left panel (gray area) depicts modeling steps in N-SPECT. The two columns on the right
correspond to SedNet/ANNEX. Common steps are presented side by side and different box shapes and shadings are used to describe the different elements (i.e., input data, parameters and outputs). Within each step, different font types and colors are used to indicate differences between the models, i.e., when input data/parameters or outputs are
common to both models or exclusive to one (depicted in italics and gray or white color for input or outputs, respectively).


J.G. Alvarez-Romero
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network. Finally, we combined both maps into a single layer that

represented the maximum extent of current riparian vegetation.
We describe preparation of the oodplain grid in Section 2.3.8.
Due to lack of data specic to the region and smaller variation in
the other coefcients used in SedNet to estimate bank erosion
(i.e., bank erosion coefcient, sediment bulk density, and proportion of ne sediment), we used the default values for our
modeling exercise. Bank erosion is not included in N-SPECT.
2.3.7. Particulate nutrients
The percentage of clay and nutrient content (only nitrogen for
our study) of soil units is required to estimate the amount of particulate nutrients associated with soil erosion in SedNet (Wilkinson
et al., 2004). We used the Soil and Terrain Database for Latin
America and the Caribbean (SOTERLAC), which provides information on some of these parameters (Dijkshoorn et al., 2005) and has
been used for regional modeling with N-SPECT (Burke and Sugg,
2.3.8. Deposition and loss of sediment and nutrients
Reservoirs are a major sink for suspended sediments transported through rivers (Walling, 2006) and are used in SedNet to
estimate sediment deposition based on an updated version of the
Brune equation (Wilkinson et al., 2004). The surface area of reservoirs, along with mean air temperature (also from WorldClim
dataset), is also used in SedNet to estimate denitrication. We
mapped 11 reservoirs by combining the national reservoir database
(CONAGUA, 2008) and the most recent land use map (i.e., 2000), in
which water bodies were delineated. Reservoir capacity (GL) was
extracted from the database or estimated using ArcMap 3D Analyst
(see Supplementary Material).
Along with reservoirs and lakes, river oodplains are landforms
where substantial volumes of suspended sediments accumulate
(Walling et al., 2003) and thus are incorporated into SedNet to
estimate sediment deposition. Due to lack of information on the
spatial distribution of oodplains, we calculated the multiresolution valley bottom index (MrVBF) to map at low-lying
areas, which can be related to depth of soil deposit (Gallant and
Dowling, 2003). We used ArcMap to identify the natural breaks in
MrVBF values across the region, and following Wilkinson et al.
(2009), we selected those areas with an index value  2.0 as potential oodplains. This model can be used as a proxy in the absence
of data, but validation and model renements are advisable to
improve results. Sediment deposition in reservoirs and oodplains
is not considered in N-SPECT.
2.3.9. Sediment delivery ratio
Due to the lack of empirical data for our study region we
determined the SDR based on studies undertaken in geographically
proximate areas and catchments with similar characteristics.
Norman (2007) studied a watershed in the U.S.-Mexican border and
modeled a spatially-distributed SDR with a mean of 0.19. A study in
nez et al., 2001) calculated
the Gulf of Mexico (Martnez-Me
empirical SDR values using measured sediment loads from 10 hydrometric stations; the median SDR across studied subcatchments
was 0.09. A large-scale application of SedNet in the Great Barrier
Reef catchments used an SDR of 0.1, producing results that were
consistent with measured sediment loads, relative contribution of
erosion processes, and observed deposition in oodplains. For our
study, using an SDR of 0.1 in SedNet provided a good t between
measured and modeled sediment yields. For N-SPECT, we
compared the results of using the spatially-distributed SDR calculated by the software (median 0.89) and a uniform SDR of 0.1. Using
the spatially-distributed SDR overestimated sediment yields by
orders of magnitude, so we decided to use the same e uniform e

SDR as in SedNet; this allowed us to directly compare the models'

2.4. Evaluation of performance and outputs of models
2.4.1. Performance of models
We summarized and compared differences in performance for
modeled vs. observed runoff and suspended sediments. We
compared modeled runoff with discharge records from gauge stations (IMTA, 2010). For each station we estimated the mean annual
runoff (based on monthly aggregated data) and the bootstrapped
95th (percentile) condence interval (CI) using Pop-Tools' (Hood,
2010) Monte Carlo simulation tool (data were resampled with
replacement, 10,000 replicates, a 0.05). Gauge-station data were
further validated against reported mean annual runoff from Mexico's Water Commission (CNA, 2008). Of the 11 gauge stations with
good data in the BANDAS database, 7 stations (9008, 9011, 9018,
9063, 9067, 9068 and 9089) also included suspended sediment
records (data were limited to a few years of record: median 15),
which were summarized as annual sediment loads using monthly
aggregates. To compare modeled and recorded sediment load estimates, we summarized annual sediment records (reported as m3)
using monthly mean volume from data recorded in the gauge
stations. To calculate total suspended sediment (TSS) loads (t y1)
from gauge station data, we used the typical density of saturated
sediment (1.3 t m3) (O'Connor et al., 2003), and estimated the
mean and the bootstrapped 95th CI for the mean load following the
same procedure as for runoff. We plotted observed vs. modeled
data to assess agreement and to identify patterns of over- and
under-estimation. We calculated the mean square absolute error
(RMSE) across the gauge set as an overall measure of model performance (Wilkinson et al., 2014).
2.4.2. Spatial pattern of supply and estimated loads of pollutants
We summarized similarities and differences between models in
estimates of pollutant load and overall budget. We focused on TSS
and nitrogen (dissolved inorganic nitrogen: DIN, and total nitrogen:
TN) as examples of typical constituents considered in water quality
modeling and monitoring.
First, we compared the results based on common outputs for
both models (i.e., supply of TSS and DIN from catchments and
subcatchments). This identied differences in spatial distribution of
supply of pollutants resulting from inherent differences between
models, rather than from processes not modeled by N-SPECT (e.g.,
deposition, denitrication, and particulate nutrients).
Second, we compared results based on the nal outputs of each
model (i.e., considering both common outputs and processes
modeled only in SedNet) and quantied differences in end-of-river
pollutant loads, as well as the differences in modeled contributions
from specic subcatchments. We used percentage contribution
from subcatchments to identify the subcatchments that were
contributing most to the region-wide pollutant loads. This relative
measure was used to directly compare maps from both models and
to explore the potential effects when prioritizing catchment
Finally, we assessed the potential consequences of using the
outputs of either model when targeting catchment management to
reduce the delivery of pollutants to the sea. We used the decisionsupport tool Marxan (Ball et al., 2009) to identify subcatchments
that could be managed to reduce TSS and DIN loads. Marxan's
optimization algorithm nds solutions (sets of planning units) that
achieve dened targets at the lowest cost possible. We arbitrarily
set our management targets as a reduction of 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%, 25%
and 30% of the total load for each pollutant (i.e., six scenarios per
pollutant). The potential contribution of each planning unit

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(subcatchment) to the achievement of targets was measured as its

TSS/DIN supply (no reservoirs), thus allowing direct comparison of
the models. We generated solutions (sets of subcatchments that
achieved the stated targets) for TSS and DIN independently to show
the differences in prioritization for each pollutant. Due to lack of
information on economic costs of management actions in the study
area, we used subcatchment area (km2) as a proxy for management
costs (hereafter referred to as costs). We generated one hundred
solutions for each scenario and calculated the total cost (i.e.,
summed area of selected subcatchments) of each solution and the
variation across solutions. We then used cost to compare the effects of using the models to target management.
3. Results
3.1. Performance of models
Overall, SedNet consistently estimated spatial variations in
runoff with higher accuracy. In most cases, SedNet's modeled values
fell within the condence intervals for runoff calculated from gauge
data (Fig. 3A). We used the coefcient of efciency (E) to assess the
performance or goodness of t of the regionalization models used in
SedNet (Wilkinson et al., 2006) and obtained a good t between the
runoff coefcient (Rc) and Eo/P (E 0.776). Similarly, E values for
bankfull ow (Qbf) and median overbank ow (Qmo) (0.932 and
0.829, respectively) indicated a good t between SedNet predictions
and gauge data. The coefcient of efciency is similar to an R2 and
expresses the proportion of variance of the observed runoff coefcient explained by the model (Nash and Sutcliffe, 1970). In contrast,
many of N-SPECTs modeled runoff values fell outside of the condence intervals, generally over-estimating runoff in gauges
recording lower discharge and under-estimating runoff for gauge
stations with higher discharge. The highest discrepancies between
modeled and observed runoff (including over- and underestimation in both models) corresponded to gauges located downstream of wet areas (e.g., gauges 9067 and 9068, Fig. 1C).
We found important differences in modeled and observed TSS
loads for both models (Fig. 3B), but overall performance of SedNet
was better when compared with the default output of N-SPECT
derived using a spatially-distributed SDR (RMSE was 202% and
737% for SedNet and N-SPECT, respectively). However, using a


uniform SDR (0.1) in N-SPECT signicantly improved results (RMSE:

102%) and estimated TSS loads with higher accuracy than SedNet.
Estimated TSS loads derived using N-SPECT with a uniform SDR fell
mostly within the condence intervals around observed values and
within the expected range of variation. These results, along with
the similarity in the overall patterns of TSS supply between the two
models (discussed in Section 3.2.1) indicate that the large absolute
difference (overestimation by N-SPECT) can be attributed to the
high SDR values calculated in N-SPECT (in comparison with the
uniform value of 0.1 used in SedNet); see corrected N-SPECT values
in Fig. 3B. Modeled TSS loads from SedNet were mostly within the
condence intervals, except for a couple of gauge stations (9063
and 9089), both corresponding to subcatchments with a disproportionally high percentage of modeled oodplain (8.0% and
6.6% of the catchment area, respectively) relative to the other gaged
subcatchments (median: 0.9%), which would explain these unexpected discrepancies. However, given the relatively large discrepancies in loads for these two stations, errors in monitored TSS loads
cannot be discounted. Variations in estimated TSS loads between
models were in agreement with differences in modeled sediment
supply described below (Section 3.2).
3.2. Spatial patterns of supply and estimated loads of pollutants
3.2.1. Differences in patterns of pollutant supply and contribution
from subcatchments
Despite the observable spatial similarity between the two
models in terms of modeled TSS supply (Fig. 4A and B), the percentage contribution for individual subcatchments differed notably
across the study area. Although absolute differences seem small
between models (Fig. 4C), these should be interpreted in comparison with the percentage contribution by each subcatchment to the
total TSS supply across the study area (maximum TSS contribution
by any given subcatchment was 1.5%). Overall, the percentage difference between models (calculated as N-SPECT - SedNet) was low
to moderate across most of the catchments (<0.11% difference,
including both positive and negative differences). Areas of
discrepancy included subcatchments with either low or high
modeled TSS supply (Fig. 4C), thus suggesting that the additional
processes modeled by SedNet (i.e., deposition in oodplains and
bank erosion) could have a small e but signicant e inuence

Fig. 3. Observed and modeled ow and suspended sediment loads derived using N-SPECT and SedNet models: A) mean annual runoff depths; and B) mean total suspended
sediment yield (due to large differences between observed TSS loads and loads estimated using both models, we use a logarithmic scale to visualize estimated loads). Panel B depicts
the inuence of sediment delivery ratio (SDR) on TSS predictions by presenting N-SPECTs estimates of TSS loads using the software's spatially-variable (default) SDR and corrected
values (marked as N-SPECT-b) calculated using a uniform SDR of 0.1. The black line represents the observed values and gray lines the bootstrapped 95th (percentile) condence
interval for the mean, estimated from gauge data (only available for records before the construction of dams).


J.G. Alvarez-Romero
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Fig. 4. Patterns across subcatchments of supply of suspended sediment (TSS) and dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), as modeled by N-SPECT and SedNet/ANNEX. In all cases supply
is represented as the percentage contribution by each subcatchment to the total TSS or DIN supply across the study area: TSS supply estimated by A) N-SPECT, B) SedNet, and C)
difference in percentage TSS supply; and DIN supply estimated by D) N-SPECT; E) SedNet/ANNEX, and F) difference in percentage DIN supply per subcatchment. Panels C and F
expose the areas where N-SPECT estimates higher (yellow to red), lower (light blue to cobalt) or similar (gray) values for TSS/DIN percentage contribution in relation to SedNet/

when prioritizing catchment management at regional (catchmentwide) scale.

Differences in spatial patterns in estimated DIN supply are more
evident between the two models (Fig. 4D, E) than for TSS supply.
The percentage difference between models (calculated as N-SPECT
e SedNet) was generally higher (see Fig. 4F) and differences for
individual subcatchments were more pronounced than for TSS. DIN
supply as calculated by SedNet was concentrated strongly in
eastern mountainous and wet subcatchments (Fig. 4E, F), while NSPECT modeled a somewhat less concentrated pattern of supply
(Fig. 4D). The more dispersed pattern from N-SPECT included larger
contributions from some central, western, and southern catchments, in most cases clearly driven by the dominant land uses (e.g.,
agriculture and pasture; see Fig. 1C). Neither model systematically
estimated higher or lower DIN supply across the study area.
Comparing modeled TSS and TN contribution (which incorporates dissolved inorganic nitrogen, dissolved organic nitrogen, and particulate nitrogen) between models revealed the strong
inuence of sinks (particularly reservoirs) and the input of particulate nutrients (associated with erosion) to the total nutrient load,
both of which are incorporated only in SedNet (Fig. 5). The term
contribution is used instead of supply to indicate that SedNet
considers sinks (e.g., sediment deposition and denitrication) that
modify subcatchments' supply in terms of their contributions to

end-of-river loads. N-SPECT does not consider sinks, so supply

equals contribution. The inuence of large reservoirs was evident
from the low TSS contribution estimated by SedNet for most of the
Yaqui River's upper catchment (yellow to red areas in Fig. 5C) and to
a lesser extent for the upper Mayo River catchment (Fig. 5B). Accounting for reservoirs in SedNet shifted the distribution of areas of
high TSS contribution from the upper to the lower portions of the
catchments compared to N-SPECT (blue areas in Fig. 5C). The
overall contribution of river-bank erosion estimated in SedNet was
negligible (~1% of TSS load), explaining the minimal differences in
patterns of TSS supply between the summed (bank and hillslope)
and the hillslope-only erosion supply (comparative map not presented). The TN contribution patterns show the importance of
particulate nutrients associated with erosion to the total load of
nitrogen (Fig. 5D, E), indicated by higher TN supply values in the
upper Mayo River catchment estimated by SedNet (blue areas in
Fig. 5F). Trapping of particulate nutrients in reservoirs is also
evident from the higher TN contribution values estimated by NSPECT for the upper Yaqui River and western Mayo River catchments (yellow to red areas in Fig. 5F).
Our analysis using Marxan showed that the spatial allocation of
management actions was sensitive to the observed differences in
modeled TSS/DIN supply. The differences in cost between the
solutions based on N-SPECT and SedNet outputs were small, but

J.G. Alvarez-Romero
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Fig. 5. Patterns of contribution by subcatchments of total suspended sediment (TSS) and total nitrogen (TN), as modeled by N-SPECT and SedNet/ANNEX. Values are represented as
the percentage contribution by each subcatchment to the total TSS or DIN contribution across the study area: A) TSS contribution estimated by N-SPECT; B) TSS contribution
estimated by SedNet, including sediment eroded from river banks and deposited in reservoirs and oodplains; C) difference in percentage TSS contribution; D) TN supply estimated
by N-SPECT (calculated using Event Mean Concentration for TN); E) TN contribution estimated by SedNet/ANNEX as the sum of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), dissolved organic
nitrogen (DON) and particulate nitrogen (PN), considering sinks (i.e., DIN denitrication, DON loss in reservoirs and PN deposition in reservoirs and oodplains); and F) difference in
percentage TN contribution. Panels C and F expose the areas where N-SPECT estimates higher (yellow to red), lower (light blue to cobalt) or similar (gray) values for TSS/TN
percentage contribution in relation to SedNet.

costs were consistently higher when using N-SPECT for targets

above 10% and 15% reduction in DIN and TSS loads, respectively
(Fig. 6). For both pollutants, the cost differences widened as targets increased, indicating that some subcatchments were only
included in solutions based on N-SPECT or SedNet outputs (most
likely those with the largest difference in percentage contribution)
and these subcatchments became more important as the targets
increased. The differences in costs between models were larger
for DIN than for TSS across all targets; this result is consistent with
the important differences observed in DIN supply patterns.

3.2.2. Differences in estimated end-of river loads

Differences in the total (end-of-river) loads for both pollutants
were considerable (Table 2), highlighting the more conservative
estimates from SedNet of TSS supply to the stream network. In
addition to the large differences in estimated TSS loads (up to 3 and
2 orders of magnitude when compared with N-SPECTs default and
adjusted values, respectively), the relative contributions from
catchments also varied considerably (Table 2). Major differences
were notable in loads of the four major catchments (comprising
~90% of total study area), where the largest catchment (Yaqui River)

was identied as the major contributor to end-of-river loads in NSPECT, while SedNet estimated that most of the sediments effectively delivered to the coast were from the second largest catchment (Mayo River; see Table 2). This change in order of importance
was mostly driven by deposition occurring in reservoirs. Differences in overall patterns across catchments of estimated TN loads
were less marked, with the two largest catchments identied by
both models as the main contributors (Table 2). However, three
important differences are noteworthy: rst, the contributions from
these two very large catchments in SedNet was very similar, but
slightly larger for the second largest catchment (Mayo); second, NSPECT estimated total nitrogen load from the Yaqui as three times
larger than from the Mayo (equivalent to 3 times the load estimated
by SedNet); and third, estimates of TN for the two smaller catchments were of similar magnitude, but N-SPECT estimated half the
load for one and 1.2 times for the other.

4. Discussion
In areas where land-based impacts on coastal-marine ecosystems are important (Halpern et al., 2009), a crucial yet neglected

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Fig. 6. Differences in costs associated with the spatial allocation of catchment management based on N-SPECT and SedNet outputs. The black/grey markers represent the
mean cost (total area of subcatchments selected for management) of 100 solutions
generated with Marxan (Ball et al., 2009) using N-SPECT modeled DIN/TSS supply; red/
pink correspond to cost of solutions based on SedNet outputs. Error bars are the
condence interval for the mean (a 0.01) based on 100 solutions and lines tted
power trend lines (R2 > 0.998) across targets (5%e30% reduction in total DIN/TSS
supply). (For interpretation of the references to colour in this gure legend, the reader
is referred to the web version of this article).

component of conservation planning is to reduce or mitigate such

impacts (Alvarez-Romero
et al., 2011). We compared two
commonly-used catchment models to assess their performance,
data requirements, ease of implementation, and utility for regionalscale planning, and found important differences. Here we discuss
the implications of our key ndings for conservation practitioners
seeking to incorporate land-based impacts into coastal-marine
exercises in conservation prioritization.
4.1. Differences in model performance: accuracy and spatial
We found important differences in performance between
models. SedNet consistently estimated spatial variations in runoff

with higher accuracy and, unlike N-SPECT, its modeled TSS loads
were mostly within the expected range of variation. While accurate
runoff predictions are not required to predict TSS yield (and loads
estimated by N-SPECT can be adjusted using a calibrated SDR),
differences in predictions for dissolved nutrients were substantial.
In N-SPECT, central, western, and southern catchments dominated
DIN supply (largely driven by land uses), while SedNet predicted
higher supply from the eastern mountainous and wet subcatchments; this resulted in differences in the spatial allocation of
management actions to reduce the delivery of DIN to the sea. The
major differences between the two models e for absolute TSS loads
e can be attributed to the large disparity between the spatiallyvariable SDR calculated by N-SPECT (median: 0.89) and the
selected SDR used in SedNet (0.1). However, using a uniform SDR of
0.1 in N-SPECT resulted in a better t and drew attention to the
marked underestimation of SedNet for two subcatchments. This
underestimation is likely attributed to oodplain deposition
(modeled oodplains cover >6% of both subcatchments, in comparison with <2% for the rest), indicating that the oodplain model
needs revising and improving. While available information suggests that gully erosion probably has a minor contribution to TSS
loads in the region, this needs to be assessed. Therefore, including
gullies in the model may further reduce the amount of residual
error in SedNet predictions. Although it was not possible to validate
the models' TN outputs with empirical data, the large differences in
estimates for this parameter between the two models demand
further examination.
Differences in performance between models relate to intrinsic
differences in their approaches. For example, SedNet was better
able to incorporate runoff processes operating at catchment scales
and over longer periods of time (decades) (Wilkinson et al., 2006),
and unlike N-SPECT, SedNet incorporated sinks (reservoirs and
oodplains) and other sources of pollutants (river bank erosion and
particulate nutrients). These additional considerations in SedNet
reect the budget approach of the model, which confers a better
understanding of the dominant sources, sinks, and uxes of material throughout the catchments (Walling et al., 2011). In contrast,
factors negatively affecting the performance of N-SPECT in predicting long-term runoff over large areas included coarse data and
uncalibrated parameters. These differences further emphasize the
need to pay special attention to calibrating runoff to obtain more
reliable estimates of pollutant supply and delivery. Likewise, the
large overestimation of TSS loads based on N-SPECTs default
spatially-distributed SDR indicates the need for careful revision of
this parameter regarding its validity for studied catchments.

Table 2
End-of-river loads of TSS and TN for the four major catchments.
TSS (kt y1)

TN (t y1)




74 (1131/116*)
143 (206/22*)
23 (92/11*)
12 (75/8*)


1201 (3.0*)
1595 (0.7*)
123 (0.5*)
57 (1.2*)

Total major catchment load

Region-wide load





Major catchments prop.






Area (km )





Numbers in parenthesis correspond to the N-SPECT/SedNet ratio (for a and b N-SPECT TSS loads).
Calculated using N-SPECTs default spatially-distributed SDR (median: 0.89).
Adjusted TSS loads estimated by N-SPECT using a uniform SDR (0.1).
TSS load estimated by SedNet includes sediment eroded from river bank and deposition in reservoirs and oodplains.
TN load is calculated by N-SPECT using EMC values for TN
TN load is calculated in SedNet as DIN DON PN - DIN denitrication - DON reservoir loss - PN deposition in reservoirs and oodplains

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4.2. Data requirements and ease of implementation

Overall, data requirements were not considered a major limitation to the implementation of either N-SPECT or SedNet in the
study area, despite the relatively limited data available compared to
other regions where the models have been used (e.g., Burke and
Sugg, 2006; McKergow et al., 2005). In most cases, datasets of
appropriate resolution for region-wide applications were available
or it was possible to model the required data (e.g., locations of
oodplains and riparian vegetation) with readily available tools and
data. However, where used, modeled input data should be
considered proxies and require validation in subsequent work.
Some datasets were not available (e.g., gullies) and likely limit the
accuracy of model outputs. Once the datasets were compiled,
running the models was relatively straightforward. However, data
preparation and parameterization demanded more time and
expertise for SedNet than N-SPECT.
The time commitment to locate, assemble, assess and model
data should not be underestimated. Catchment modeling is a major
undertaking that requires not only substantial time, but also technical expertise in geographic information systems and modeling.
Assembling a research or planning group with expertise in areas
relevant to this task (e.g., hydrology, water quality, soil science) can
greatly facilitate data preparation and improve modeling outputs.
Also, exploration of intermediate model outputs and comparison of
nal outputs with the results of other studies using the same
models can help to identify errors in data inputs or parameterization and explain unexpected results (e.g., very high values). While
time consuming, the process of compiling and preparing data can
be important to guide and prioritize collection of further data.
Despite these challenges, coastal-marine conservation planners
recognize the importance of such modeling endeavors (Halpern
et al., 2009; Tallis et al., 2008).
4.3. Applicability of outputs to planning
Outputs from both models were appropriate to represent broad
spatial patterns of pollutant supply across our study area, but
spatial differences in model outputs have implications for coastal
and marine conservation planning. For example, spatial patterns of
TSS from subcatchments varied between models, with the outputs
of SedNet indicating that TSS loads were highest next to the region's highest marine conservation priority areas. Consequently,
these catchments should be prioritized for management of water
quality to minimize land-based impacts on these high-priority
marine areas (e.g., Klein et al., 2012). However, if N-SPECTs results were used instead, these catchments would not be prioritized.
Assuming N-SPECTs outputs are less reliable than those of SedNet,
which seems reasonable from our comparisons, prioritization of
catchment management based on N-SPECT would lead to highpriority marine areas continuing to suffer excessive loads of sediment and nutrients. Alternatively, N-SPECTs predictions could lead
to these marine priority areas being excluded as potential marine
conservation areas if land-based pollution was seen to be intractable (e.g., Tallis et al., 2008).
The observed differences in the spatial distribution of both
TSS and DIN supply between models (Fig. 4C,F/5C,F) had a small
e but signicant e effect on the cost of management when
using one or the other model. Despite the similarity in regional
patterns of pollutant supply (Fig. 4A/B and D/E), and the relatively small differences in proportional contribution of subcatchments between the two models (Fig. 4C/F), our
prioritization analysis shows that even small differences can
modify the spatial allocation of catchment management actions
and these can have management implications (e.g., in terms of


costs). We compared priorities for TSS and DIN independently,

but concurrent optimization across pollutants will likely result in
more cost-efcient congurations of management actions,
particularly if there are spatial correlations between sources of
different pollutants. Therefore, differences in management priorities based on N-SPECT or SedNet could be considerably larger.
For instance, if TN and TSS are targeted simultaneously, the
number of subcatchments to be managed (and total management
cost) could be smaller when using SedNet outputs because of the
large contribution of erosion to TN from particulate nutrients.
Differences resulting from incorporating additional processes in
SedNet (i.e., sinks and particulate nutrients) are evident in the
general patterns of contribution to the region-wide pollutant
loads, and thus are reected in larger percentage differences
between models. Therefore allocating actions to subcatchments
for TSS and TN management using these outputs would be even
more contrasting (especially if we consider absolute values).
These results highlight the need for managers to exercise caution
when considering catchment models to allocate actions, especially given that resources for management are limited; and, if
allocated ineffectively, might result in continued degradation of
marine ecosystems.
Our results also emphasize the need for reliable estimates of
nutrient and sediment contribution, and end-of-river loads in
particular, for marine conservation planning. Ideally load data can
be incorporated into ood-plume models to more fully assess

vulnerability of marine areas to land-based threats (e.g., AlvarezRomero et al., 2013a; Burke and Sugg, 2006), thus allowing managers to link pollution sources and affected marine areas.
4.4. Limitations and next steps
Key limitations in our model included limited empirical data to
validate modeled DIN/TN and, to a lesser extent, estimates of TSS,
particularly regarding the actual inuence of reservoirs. Our study
should thus be interpreted as a comparison of the two models
under the limitations imposed by available data and given the
characteristics of our study area, not as a generic comparison of the
models. Likewise, our results should be regarded as estimates
requiring further validation.
Catchment modeling in a region with relatively limited data
means that data gaps constrain the results. For example, apparent
patterns of sediment supply might have changed if we had been
able to incorporate other erosion processes (e.g., associated with
gullies or mass landslides), which have been identied as important sources of sediment in some areas of Mexico (Evrard et al.,
2010; Geissen et al., 2007). While we expect the inuence of gullies in the region would be minor, not having this data in SedNet
prevented us from assessing the potential contribution of this
process. Studies in other regions have shown that errors in the
allocation of sediment to different sources can be signicant (e.g.,
gullies were found to be the major sources of sediments, in contrast
to the predicted loads estimated by SedNet: Caitcheon et al., 2012).
This means that even if data were available for gullies and bank
erosion, results should still be further explored. Therefore, further
studies, including mapping of existing gullies (e.g., using remotesensing) and sediment tracing (Wilkinson et al., 2013) would be
useful to validate pollutant sources, thus improving the spatial
allocation and type of management to mitigate erosion and sedimentation impacts. Road erosion can be another important source
of sediments in some regions but is not incorporated in either
model; available tools (e.g., SEDMODL a GIS-based sediment prediction model: Akay et al., 2008) can help to assess the potential
contribution of this process in the region and adjust management


J.G. Alvarez-Romero
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Higher-quality inputs would improve the outputs of both

models. In particular, with a view to improving the accuracy of
catchment models, priorities for research and monitoring activities
in the study area should include: improving soil data; mapping and
studying the contribution of gullies to TSS; characterizing local
erosion and deposition rates; and monitoring catchment-scale and
long-term nutrient loads associated with rainfall runoff. Our results
should thus be regarded as hypotheses to support further investigation, for example, to test whether TSS exports are derived predominantly from areas downstream of reservoirs, as predicted by
SedNet. The lack of post-damming gauge data stresses the need to
reassess the performance of the model based on current TSS loads,
particularly if the outputs are to inform prioritization of erosion
control to minimize coastal-marine impacts.
Despite data limitations, we used the best available information
and our preliminary estimates are a rst and critical step to identify
data gaps, potential problems, and areas of interest for further
investigation. Commonly, managers will not be able to postpone
management actions, instead having to make decisions based on
limited information and resources; under these circumstances,
recognizing these limitations and the potential consequences is
critical. In addition, managers should consider undertaking a
sensitivity analysis when parameterizing and calibrating the
models, preparing data inputs and selecting between different
models. Provided the levels of uncertainty in each model input are
represented, sensitivity analysis can help to assess uncertainty in
model outputs and the potential implications of different management decisions based on limited data conditions (e.g.,
Nandakumar and Mein, 1997).
5. Conclusions
Our results indicate that the differences in the predicted patterns of pollutant supply varied notably between the two models.
Comparing predicted vs. observed data indicates that SedNet predicts TSS loads with a higher degree of accuracy, and generally
within estimated variations of observed loads, when compared to
N-SPECTs default outputs. However, adjusted loads calculated in
N-SPECT using a calibrated SDR gave better results and highlighted
the need to revise the modeled oodplains and predicted sediment
deposition in SedNet. Differences in subcatchments' contribution to
pollutant loads were principally due to explicit representation of
sediment sinks and particulate nutrients by SedNet. This means
that the observed limitations of N-SPECT would be emphasized in
catchments with reservoirs, and thus direct application of this
model to estimate TSS loads in regulated catchments is not advisable or would require further renement. Using different scenarios
for each model would be a useful tool to assess the potential consequences of using either model.
We also conclude that, while SedNet predicted spatial variation
in TSS loads well, the absence of local data on erosion rates,
including gully erosion, means that this preliminary modeling does
not reliably identify the sediment sources requiring remediation,
but rather identies the priority areas of the region where further
investigation can be focused.
Overall, we conclude that N-SPECT outputs are sensitive to some
input parameters, including soil permeability and rain days, and do
not account for pollutant-trapping in reservoirs. Another limitation
regarding the application of model outputs to management of
nutrients is the lack of functionality to estimate nutrient runoff
associated with irrigation in both N-SPECT and SedNet. This means
that the signicant contributions to nutrient runoff from coastal
and dry parts of the region (e.g., the intensive agricultural system of
the Yaqui Valley) are likely to be underestimated, as will their potential ecological effects on coastal marine ecosystems. Additional

analyses are required to address this limitation in these and related

Our study was focused on integrating land-based impacts into
coastal-marine conservation planning. The next steps towards truly
integrated land-sea planning involve linking land-based impacts to

marine regions (i.e., through river plume models: Alvarez-Romero
et al., 2013a), assessing where the impacts negatively affect sensitive and vulnerable coastal and marine habitats or species (Halpern
et al., 2009), and prioritizing catchments for management to reduce
land-based impacts (Klein et al., 2012). Different strategies to
address cross-system threats are possible, depending on factors
such as the uniqueness of the affected marine features and the

feasibility of mitigating land-based and/or marine threats (AlvarezRomero et al., 2011). The conguration of priority maps associated
with these strategies can be very different and spatially uncorrelated, hence there will be tradeoffs. The exploration of spatial options under different management scenarios will provide critical
information to guide the planning process. To our knowledge, no
previous study has included all of these steps, so exploring options
to integrate these elements in coastal and marine planning should
be considered a research priority.
We thank the following persons for providing information and
technical advice: Dave Eslinger and Jamieson Carter (U.S. National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Services
Center); Hector Cortes-Torres, Juan Francisco Gomez-Martinez
and Pedro Rivera-Ruiz (IMTA); Rafael Hernandez (CIAD); Stephen Lewis (ACTFR-JCU); Eusebio Ventura (UQRO); Alejandro
alez-Serratos (CONAGUA); Arturo Flores-Martnez and
 Luis Pe
n (INE);
Cleotilde Arellano (SEMARNAT); Jose
and Melanie Kolb (CONABIO). We also thank the following organizations for providing software: NOAA (N-SPECT) and Australia's
Commonwealth Scientic and Industrial Research Organization
(CSIRO) Land and Water (SedNet/ANNEX), and datasets: Servicio
 n Agroalimentaria y Pesquera (SIAP-SAGARPA);
de Informacio
 n Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad
(CONABIO); Secretara de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales
(SEMARNAT); Instituto Nacional de Ecologa (INE-SEMARNAT),
and Instituto Nacional de Estadstica, Geografa e Informa
(INEGI). We also thank P. Visconti for support in scripting to
analyze gauge data, Gordon Bailey for providing IT support, and
the High Performance Computing Unit at James Cook University
for computational facilities. We thank three anonymous reviewers, who provided useful comments which improved the
original manuscript. JGAR gratefully acknowledges support from
Mexico's Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologa (CONACYT) and
n Pblica (SEP), as well as from the
Secretara de Educacio
Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef
Studies. RLP and NCB acknowledge the support of the Australian
Research Council.
Appendix A. Supplementary data
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