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Near-field receiving water monitoring of trace metals and a benthic community near the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant in south San Francisco Bay, California; 2016

October 30, 2017

Trace-metal concentrations in sediment and in the clam Macoma petalum (formerly reported as Macoma balthica), clam reproductive activity, and benthic macroinvertebrate community structure were investigated in a mudflat 1 kilometer south of the discharge of the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant (PARWQCP) in south San Francisco Bay, Calif. This report includes the data collected by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists for the period January 2014 to December 2016. These append to long-term datasets extending back to 1974. A major focus of the report is an integrated description of the 2016 data within the context of the longer, multi-decadal dataset. This dataset supports the City of Palo Alto’s Near-Field Receiving Water Monitoring Program, initiated in 1994.

Significant reductions in silver and copper concentrations in sediment and M. petalum occurred at the site in the 1980s following the implementation by PARWQCP of advanced wastewater treatment and source control measures. Since the 1990s, concentrations of these elements appear to have stabilized at concentrations somewhat above (silver) or near (copper) regional background concentrations Data for other metals, including chromium (Cr), mercury (Hg), nickel (Ni), selenium (Se), and zinc (Zn), have been collected since 1994. Over this period, concentrations of these elements have remained relatively constant, aside from seasonal variation that is common to all elements. In 2016, concentrations of silver and copper in M. petalum varied seasonally in response to a combination of site-specific metal exposures and annual growth and reproduction, as reported previously. Seasonal patterns for other elements, including Cr, Ni, Zn, Hg, and Se, were generally similar in timing and magnitude as those for Ag and Cu. This record suggests that legacy contamination and regional-scale factors now largely control sedimentary and bioavailable concentrations of silver and copper, as well as other elements of regulatory interest, at the Palo Alto site.

Analyses of the benthic community structure of a mudflat in south San Francisco Bay over a 40-year period show that changes in the community have occurred concurrent with reduced concentrations of metals in the sediment and in the tissues of the biosentinel clam, M. petalum, from the same area. Analysis of M. petalum shows increases in reproductive activity concurrent with the decline in metal concentrations in the tissues of this organism. Reproductive activity is presently stable (2016), with almost all animals initiating reproduction in the fall and spawning the following spring. The entire infaunal community has shifted from being dominated by several opportunistic species to a community where the species are more similar in abundance, a pattern that indicates a more stable community that is subjected to fewer stressors. In addition, two of the opportunistic species (Ampelisca abdita and Streblospio benedicti) that brood their young and live on the surface of the sediment in tubes have shown a continual decline in dominance coincident with the decline in metals; both species had short-lived rebounds in abundance in 2008, 2009, and 2010 and showed signs of increasing abundance in 2016. Heteromastus filiformis (a subsurface polychaete worm that lives in the sediment, consumes sediment and organic particles residing in the sediment, and reproduces by laying its eggs on or in the sediment) showed a concurrent increase in dominance and, in the last several years before 2008, showed a stable population. H. filiformis abundance increased slightly in 2011–2012 and returned to pre-2011 numbers in 2016. An unidentified disturbance occurred on the mudflat in early 2008 that resulted in the loss of the benthic animals, except for deep-dwelling animals like Macoma petalum. However, within two months of this event animals returned to the mudflat. The resilience of the community suggested that the disturbance was not due to a persistent toxin or anoxia. The reproductive mode of most species present in 2016 is reflective of species that were available either as pelagic larvae or as mobile adults. Although oviparous species were lower in number in this group, the authors hypothesize that these species will return slowly as more species move back into the area. The use of functional ecology was highlighted in the 2016 benthic community data, which showed that the animals that have now returned to the mudflat are those that can respond successfully to a physical, nontoxic disturbance. Today, community data show a mix of species that consume the sediment, or filter feed, have pelagic larvae that must survive landing on the sediment, and those that brood their young. USGS scientists view the 2008 disturbance event as a response by the infaunal community to an episodic natural stressor (possibly sediment accretion or a pulse of freshwater), in contrast to the long-term recovery from metal contamination. We will compare this recovery to the long-term recovery observed after the 1970s when the decline in sediment pollutants was the dominating factor.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2017
Title Near-field receiving water monitoring of trace metals and a benthic community near the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant in south San Francisco Bay, California; 2016
DOI 10.3133/ofr20171135
Authors Daniel J. Cain, Janet K. Thompson, Francis Parchaso, Sarah A. Pearson, Robin Stewart, Mathew Turner, David Barasch, Samuel N. Luoma
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2017-1135
Index ID ofr20171135
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Western Branch