Grasslands and wooded grasslands cover around 40% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface and more than ¼ of global runoff originates from these systems. Yet, surprisingly little is known about the ecology and unique properties of streams that link grasslands to downstream habitats. Understanding the ecology and ecosystem services provided by small headwater streams in the Great Plains region is especially important because those streams represent a critical interface between terrestrial habitats and downstream areas, and processes occurring in these streams affect downstream water quality. In addition, because these streams are characterized by highly variable flow regime and periodic flooding and drying, they can serve as model systems for studying disturbance ecology and issues such as resistance and resilience in temperate freshwater ecosystems. Based on decades of research on Kings Creek and its tributaries at the Konza Prairie site, KNZ scientists have developed and continue to refine a novel conceptual model of pristine grassland streams that emphasizes the role of periodic drying and flooding and unique linkages with terrestrial ecosystems. The trajectories of responses to flood and drought are tied to the animals living in the streams and the highly dynamic nature of these streams.
Few relatively unimpacted tallgrass prairie streams remain in North America, even though such streams once drained a substantial portion of the continent. Most of these streams are now heavily impacted by row crop agriculture, water extraction, livestock production and urbanization. Because Konza Prairie includes several upland watersheds and drainage basins that are protected from agricultural and development, the streams that occur there provide important baseline data on the hydrology, ecology and water quality of relatively pristine prairie streams. Long term data from Kings Creek on Konza Prairie and other tallgrass streams demonstrates that excellent water quality and low transport of contaminants characterizes prairie streams. Natural processes such as grazing by native bison and periodic fires have only modest effects on water quality and downstream pollution. Further, studies of nutrient cycling processes in Kings Creek and similar streams has revealed that these headwater streams control water quality and nitrogen export in the Midwest. As one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, prairie streams are important habitats from a conservation perspective in addition to serving as critical zones for controlling the movement and processing of materials from land to downstream aquatic habitats. Long-term data from Konza Prairie are allowing us to better understand the role of streams as an important component of grasslands globally, and as ecosystems that are vulnerable to regional to global anthropogenic change.