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Contaminant trends in reservoir sediment cores as records of influent stream quality

January 1, 2004

When reconstructing water-quality histories from lake and reservoir cores, it is sometimes assumed that the chemical signatures in the cores reflect historical water quality in the influent streams. To investigate this assumption, concentrations of metals, PAHs, and organochlorine compounds in sediment cores were compared to those associated with an influent-stream suspended sediment for three reservoirs in Fort Worth, TX, and two reservoirs in Boston, MA, U.S.A., and interpreted in light of land-use and regulation histories. In evaluating relations between suspended sediments and cores, three levels of preservation were indicated: (1) influent concentrations and historical trends are preserved in cores (metals at all sites; some organic contaminants at some sites); (2) some loss occurs during transport and initial deposition but relative historical trends are preserved in cores (some organic contaminants at some sites); and (3) neither stream concentrations nor relative historical trends are preserved (dieldrin and p,p???-DDT). The degree of preservation of influent concentration histories varied between lakes, particularly for PAHs. The results support the use of sediment cores to infer streamwater-quality histories for many contaminants but indicate that reservoir-bottom sediment samples might underestimate concentrations of organic contaminants in some streams.