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The capacity of freshwater ecosystems to recover from exceedances of aquatic life criteria

August 26, 2022

In the United States, national chemical water quality criteria for the protection of aquatic life assume that aquatic ecosystems have sufficient resiliency to recover from criteria exceedences occurring up to once every 3 years. This resiliency assumption was critically reviewed through two approaches: 1) synthesis of case studies and 2) population modeling. The population modeling examined differences in recovery of species with widely different life histories. One invertebrate (Hyalella azteca) and four fish species were modeled (fathead minnow, brook trout, lake trout, and shortnose sturgeon) with various disturbance magnitudes and intervals. The synthesis of ecosystem case studies showed generally faster recoveries for insect communities rather than fish, and recoveries from pulse (acute) disturbances were often faster than recoveries from press (chronic) disturbances. When the recovery dataset excluded severe disturbances that seemed unrepresentative of common facility discharge upsets that might cause criteria exceedences, the median recovery time was 1 year, 81% of the cases were considered recovered within 3 years, and 95% were considered recovered within 10 years. The modeling projected that short-lived fish species with high recovery times could thrive despite enduring 50% mortality disturbances every other year. However, long-lived fish species had longer recovery times and declined under the 1 disturbance every 3 years scenario. Overall, the analyses did not refute the long-standing judgements that 3 years is generally sufficient for recovery from non-repetitive, moderate intensity disturbances of a magnitude up to 2X the chronic criteria in waters without other pollution sources or stresses. However, these constraints may not always be met and if long-lived fish species are a concern, longer return intervals such as 5 to 10 years could be indicated.

Publication Year 2022
Title The capacity of freshwater ecosystems to recover from exceedances of aquatic life criteria
DOI 10.1002/etc.5471
Authors Christopher A. Mebane
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry
Index ID 70236813
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Idaho Water Science Center