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Assessment of water quality, nutrients, algal productivity, and management alternatives for low-flow conditions, South Umpqua River basin, Oregon, 1990-92

December 1, 1996

This report is an evaluation of the effects of nutrient loading on water quality in the South Umpqua River Basin. The study was done by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with Douglas County, Oregon. Five wastewater-treatment plants were shown to contribute less than 15 percent of the flow, but more than 90 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus, in the South Umpqua River during low streamflows in summer. These nutrient inputs were associated with, and largely responsible for, the dense growth of periphytic algae that covered the rocky channel and produced biomass values as large as 340 grams of ash-free dry weight per square meter. The nighttime respiration of periphytic algae caused violations of the Oregon water-quality standard, which requires a dissolved oxygen concentration of at least 90 percent of saturation, at most sites along the South Umpqua River. Photosynthesis by algae during daylight resulted in many exceedances of the Oregon pH standard of 8.5.

Net productivity, calculated from hourly measurements of dissolved oxygen concentrations, was as much as 3.8 grams of oxygen per square meter per day. The magnitude of productivity increased with increases in dissolved inorganic nitrogen concentration and load. The large amount of nutrient uptake by algae resulted in lowered nutrient concentrations downstream from nutrient point sources.

Management alternatives for the South Umpqua River Basin include several methods to reduce nutrient concentrations and loads. The reduction of dissolved-inorganic-nitrogen and soluble- reactive-phosphorus loads from wastewater- treatment-plant effluent would reduce the frequency of violations of water-quality standards. Flow augmentation probably would decrease water-quality problems in the river, but it is difficult to predict the magnitude of the effects of increased velocity and decreased temperature on algal growth. Land application and storage of wastewater-treatment-plant effluent during the summer months would reduce the input of nutrients from point sources.

Three exceedances of the Oregon standard for fecal coliform of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters were associated with large streamflows, suggesting that nonpoint sources affect the river during periods of high runoff. Fecal-streptococcus counts were larger than historical values and require confirmation.

Ammonia from wastewater-treatment-plant effluent, high pH values, and high temperatures present a potential for chronic ammonia toxicity in the lower reaches of the South Umpqua River; however, actual violations of standards for chronic concentrations were not detected because of diel fluctuations in pH and water temperature.

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