Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Controls on phosphorus mobility in the Potomac River near the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant

January 1, 1985

The Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant is the largest point source of phosphorus in the Potomac River basin, discharging an average of 2 metric tons of phosphorus into the river each day in 1980. An intensive study of the water and sediments in the vicinity of the treatment plant was conducted in 1979-80 in order to characterize the major factors controlling the mobility of effluent-derived phosphorus in the area.

The transport of phosphorus near the treatment plant was found to be affected by the circulation regime, by inorganic adsorption reactions with sediments, and by metabolic uptake and release by phytoplankton. The effect of river discharge on the convective transport of phosphorus near the outfall is significantly reduced by a mid-river shoal area, which confines the flow path of the effluent to an embayment on the eastern side of the river for a distance of 4 kilometers below the outfall. This embayment appears to serve as a sediment trap, where protection from bottom scour during high-flow events has permitted fine-grained sediments to accumulate. Measurements of mean residence time indicate that the effluent leaves the embayment area 21? days after being discharged from the outfall.

Measurements of the linear decay constant for the removal of dissolved phosphorus from the water column reveal a diurnal cycle corresponding to the metabolic utilization of phosphorus by phytoplankton. This cyclic removal is superimposed on a constant and noncyclic adsorption of phosphorus by inorganic phases. Forty-eight hour average values of the linear decay constant for dissolved phosphorus in the area range from 0.4 to 1.1 per day.

Analyses of bottom sediments indicate that approximately 13 percent of the phosphorus discharged between September 1977 and August 1980 has been retained in the embayment. The primary inorganic phase responsible for phosphorus adsorption is amorphous iron (ferric oxy-hydroxides); amorphous aluminum and clay minerals appear to play secondary roles. The accumulation of sorbed phosphorus in the embayment has been promoted by the deposition of fine-grained sediments enriched in ferric oxy-hydroxides. Conversely, the absence of ferric oxy-hydroxides in coarse-grained sediments near the outfall has facilitated the precipitation of the ferrous phosphate mineral vivianite.

Publication Year 1985
Title Controls on phosphorus mobility in the Potomac River near the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant
DOI 10.3133/wsp2231
Authors Paul P. Hearn,
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water Supply Paper
Series Number 2231
Index ID wsp2231
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Geographic Science Center