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Roads have been widely studied as sources of runoff and sediment and identified as pollutant production sources to receiving waters. Despite the wealth of research on logging roads in forested, upland settings, little work has been conducted to examine the role of extensive networks of rural, low-volume, unpaved roads on water quality degradation at the catchment scale. We studied a network of municipal unpaved roads in the northeastern US to identify the type and spatial extent of ‘hydro-geomorphic impairments’ to water quality. We mapped erosional and depositional features on roads to develop an estimate of pollutant production. We also mapped the type and location of design interventions or best management practices (BMPs) used to improve road drainage and mitigate water quality impairment. We used statistical analyses to identify key controls on the frequency and magnitude of erosional features on the road network, and GIS to scale up from the survey results to the catchment scale to identify the likely importance of unpaved roads as a pollutant source in this setting. An average of 21 hydro-geomorphic impairments were mapped per kilometer of road, averaging 0.3 m3 in volume. Road gradient and slope position were key controls on the occurrence of these features. The presence of BMPs effectively reduced erosion frequency. Scaled up to the watershed and using a conservative estimate of road–stream connectivity, our results for the Winooski River watershed in the northeastern US suggest that roughly 16% and 6% of the average annual sediment and phosphorus flux, respectively, of the Winooski River may be derived from unpaved roads. Our study identifies an under-appreciated source of water quality degradation in rural watersheds, provides insights into identifying ‘hot spots’ of pollutant production associated with these networks, and points to effectiveness of design interventions in mitigating these adverse impacts on water quality. Copyright © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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Copyright © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.



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