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Changes in phosphorus concentrations and loads in the Assabet River, Massachusetts, October 2008 through April 2014

October 24, 2016

Treated effluent discharged from municipal wastewater-treatment plants to the Assabet River in central Massachusetts includes phosphorus, which leads to increased growth of nuisance aquatic plants that decrease the river’s water quality and aesthetics in impounded reaches during the growing season. To improve the river’s water quality and aesthetics, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved a total maximum daily load for phosphorus in 2004 that directed the wastewater-treatment plants to reduce the amount of total phosphorus discharged to the river by 2012. The permitted total phosphorus monthly average of 0.75 milligrams per liter during the aquatic plant growing season (April 1 through October 31) was reduced by the total maximum daily load to a target of 0.1 milligrams per liter by 2012, and the nongrowing-season limit was unchanged at 1.0 milligrams per liter.

From October 2008 through April 2014, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, measured streamflow and collected weekly flow-proportional, composite samples of water from the Assabet River for analysis of concentrations of total phosphorus and orthophosphate. Streamflow and concentration data were used to estimate total phosphorus and orthophosphate loads in the river. The purpose of this monitoring effort was to evaluate phosphorus concentrations and loads in the river before, during, and after the wastewater-treatment-plant upgrades and to assess the effects of seasonal differences in permitted discharges. The locations of water-quality-monitoring stations, with respect to the Hudson and Ben Smith impoundments, enabled examination of effects of phosphorus entering and leaving the impoundments.

Annual median concentrations of total phosphorus in wastewater-treatment plants were reduced by more than 80 percent with the plant upgrades. Measured instream annual median concentrations of total phosphorus in the Assabet River decreased by about 38 to 50 percent at three of the four monitoring stations following the wastewater-treatment-plant upgrades. At the station farthest upstream, the median total phosphorus concentration remained unchanged throughout the study; this may be attributed to the site location and potential resuspension of particulate organic matter during periods of increased streamflow. Annual median loads from the wastewater-treatment plants were reduced by up to 91 percent following the upgrades, instream annual median total phosphorus loads at the three downstream stations decreased by 71 to 76 percent, and instream orthophosphate loads at the three downstream stations decreased by 79 to 87 percent.

Seasonal fluctuations (growing versus nongrowing) of total phosphorus and orthophosphate were observed instream before the upgrades. However, after the upgrades, fluctuations in phosphorus released from the treatment plants were slight and seasonal changes were typically not observed instream.

Annual loads entering and leaving the two impoundments were inconclusive in determining whether the impoundments were sources or sinks of total phosphorus during the study. Total phosphorus loads entering the Hudson impoundment were consistently greater than those leaving; however, there was uncertainty about the loads at the monitoring station upstream from this impoundment. At the Ben Smith impoundment, total phosphorus and orthophosphate loads downstream were slightly greater than those upstream from the impoundment, but the differences may reflect additions from tributaries and overland runoff.

Estimated instream total phosphorus concentrations and loads indicated that the decreases in total phosphorus in wastewater-treatment-plant discharges were accompanied by reductions measured in the Assabet River. A statistical analysis which incorporates the effect of varying flow conditions demonstrated significant reductions in total phosphorus concentrations after the wastewater-treatment-plant upgrades at three of the four instream monitoring stations. No significant change was observed at the most upstream location, the Assabet River at Port Street at Hudson, Massachusetts (station number 01096835), which may have been affected by flow-related resuspension of particulate phosphorus.

Publication Year 2016
Title Changes in phosphorus concentrations and loads in the Assabet River, Massachusetts, October 2008 through April 2014
DOI 10.3133/sir20165063
Authors Jennifer G. Savoie, Leslie A. DeSimone, John R. Mullaney, Marc J. Zimmerman, Marcus C. Waldron
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2016-5063
Index ID sir20165063
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New England Water Science Center