The temporal pattern of river metabolism was estimated for high-order rivers (5–7th) in the Daly watershed, tropical Australia, during the dry season (May–October) when discharge was supplied predominantly by groundwater. Rates of photosynthesis (P) and respiration (R) were calculated at 4 sites using the open-channel method based on a model of the river's O2 budget and measured diurnal cycles of dissolved O2 concentrations and temperatures. The rivers were shallow (average depth = 0.8 m), clear (1–2 NTU), and had low concentrations of nutrients (≤15 µg/L soluble N and P at most sites) and generally open canopy. At the reach scale, P was limited by light with no evidence of light saturation. An increase in primary producer biomass over the dry season probably underpinned an approximate doubling of P at the 4 sites over the dry season, but increased water temperatures would have contributed, too. P (0.1–4.6 g O2 m−2 d−1) in the Daly watershed was similar to rates in a shaded tropical Puerto Rican stream and some temperate rivers but was lower than in nutrient-enriched temperate rivers. We surmise that most P resulted in production of dissolved organic C (DOC), rather than growth of primary producer biomass, which was nutrient limited. R exceeded P (P/R ≈ 0.5), and increased approximately linearly with P (r2 = 0.79–0.99) over the dry season with no statistically significant difference among sites. The similar environmental setting of the 4 sites underpinned their similar temporal pattern of metabolism. Bacterial metabolism of photosynthetically produced DOC (PDOC) could partially explain the tight coupling of R and P but could not account for the river's overall net heterotrophy. The priming effect of bacterial degradation of labile PDOC to increase the mineralization of recalcitrant DOC (e.g., humic acids) provides an explanation for the river's heterotrophy and tight coupling between P and R.
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