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Investigation of potential factors controlling benthic algae in the upper White River Basin, Colorado, 2018–21

March 31, 2023

Nuisance levels of benthic filamentous green algae are becoming increasingly common in surface waters of Colorado and the western United States. In 2018 the U.S. Geological Survey began a study in cooperation with the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts, Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Forum, and the Colorado River Water Conservation District to collect and analyze physical, chemical, and biological information for the upper White River Basin in Colorado and investigate causes of benthic algal blooms in the basin. This report (1) presents site-specific data including water temperature, riparian canopy cover, streambed particle size, and algal biomass and community composition; (2) describes the potential for streambed movement during spring runoff using physical channel characteristics and peak streamflow velocities; and (3) explains the results of a linear mixed-effects model used to test hypotheses about the influence of physical and chemical factors in explaining the occurrence of algal blooms across the basin.

Benthic algal biomass ranged from 0.7 to 309 milligrams per square meter during the summer (July–August) from 2018 through 2021 and exceeded the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment criteria of 150 milligrams per square meter on four occasions, in 2018. Four genera of filamentous green algae were identified in the upper White River Basin, including Cladophora, Stigeoclonium, Ulothrix, and Spirogyra. Many genera of cyanobacteria were present, including some capable of producing toxins and taste and odor compounds. The nuisance diatom Didymosphenia geminata, commonly referred to as didymo, was found at two sites on the South Fork White River and along the main stem White River.

Hypotheses pertaining to the influence of measured variables on algal biomass were tested with a linear mixed-effects model. Median rock size and mean August water temperature had significant positive effects, meaning that greater bed stability and higher mean August water temperatures result in greater algal biomass. Total nitrogen to total phosphorus ratios had a significant negative effect on algal biomass, meaning that more nitrogen-limiting conditions, or greater phosphorus availability, corresponded to greater algal biomass.

Streamflow and water temperature data at White River above Coal Creek near Meeker, Colo., were used to assess possible causes of bloom conditions across years, including when algal blooms were first studied in the basin during 2016 and 2017. Early or low-magnitude peak streamflow conditions were not prerequisites for algal bloom occurrence. Conversely, relatively large, late, and long-lasting peak streamflows, such as those measured in 2019, may limit algal blooms during the same year and into subsequent years, as evidenced by extremely low algal biomass in 2019 and 2020. The broad spatial extent of bloom conditions indicates that the factors contributing to the occurrence of algal blooms are likely basinwide. Findings from this multiyear study indicate that the effects caused by larger peak streamflow, including movement of the streambed, may be the dominant control on the occurrence of an algal bloom. The findings also indicate that in the absence of disturbance other resources, including substrate size, water temperature, and nutrient availability, moderate algal biomass.

Publication Year 2023
Title Investigation of potential factors controlling benthic algae in the upper White River Basin, Colorado, 2018–21
DOI 10.3133/sir20235009
Authors Natalie K. Day, Mark F. Henneberg
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2023-5009
Index ID sir20235009
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Colorado Water Science Center; Southwest Biological Science Center