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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—2020

April 24, 2023

Trace-metal concentrations in sediment and in the clam Limecola petalum (World Register of Marine Species, 2020; formerly reported as Macoma balthica and M. petalum), clam reproductive activity, and benthic macroinvertebrate community structure were investigated in a mudflat 1 kilometer (km) south of the discharge of the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant (PARWQCP) in south San Francisco Bay, California. This report includes the data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for January 2020–December 2020 (Cain and others, 2022). These data append to long-term datasets extending back to 1974. A major focus of the report is an integrated description of the 2020 data within the context of the longer, multidecadal dataset. This dataset supports the City of Palo Alto’s Near-Field Receiving- Water Monitoring Program, initiated in 1994.

Silver and copper contamination substantially decreased 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 in surface sediments have continued to decrease, although more slowly. For example, from 1994 to 2020, the minimum annual mean silver concentration—0.20 milligram per kilogram (mg/kg)—was observed in multiple years. In 2020, silver concentrations ranged from 0.18 to 0.28 mg/kg. These concentrations are 2 to 3 times higher than the regional background concentration. Presently (2020), sediment-copper concentrations appear to be near the regional background level. Over the same period (1994–2020), sedimentary iron and zinc exhibited modest decreases. Sedimentary aluminum, chromium, mercury, nickel, and selenium have not exhibited any trend. Since 1994, silver and copper concentrations in L. petalum have varied seasonally, apparently in response to a combination of site-specific metal exposures and cyclic growth and reproduction, as reported previously. Seasonal patterns for other elements, including chromium, mercury, nickel, selenium, and zinc, generally were similar in timing and magnitude as those for silver and copper. Downward trends in the silver and zinc concentrations in L. petalum during 1994–2020 were evident and appeared to be related to the general physiological condition of the clam, indicated by a condition index.

Biological effects of elevated silver and copper contamination at the Palo Alto site have been interpreted from data collected during and after the recession of these contaminants. Concentrations of both elements in the soft tissues of L. petalum decreased with sedimentary copper and silver. This pattern was associated with changes in the reproductive activity of L. petalum, as well as the structure of the benthic invertebrate community. Reproductive activity of L. petalum increased as metal concentrations in L. petalum decreased (Hornberger and others, 2000), and presently is stable with almost all animals initiating reproduction in the fall and spawning the following spring. Analyses of the benthic community structure indicate that the infaunal invertebrate community has shifted from one dominated by several opportunistic species when silver and copper exposures were highest to one in which the species abundance is more evenly distributed, a pattern that indicates a more stable community that is subjected to fewer stressors. Importantly, this long-term change is unrelated to other metals and other measured environmental factors, including salinity and sediment composition. 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 decrease in dominance coincident with the decrease in metals. Both species had short-lived rebounds in abundance in 2008, 2009, and 2010 and showed signs of increasing abundance in 2020. 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 from 2011 to 2012 and returned to pre-2011 numbers in 2020.

The reproductive mode of most species that were present in 2020 was indicative of species that were capable of movement 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 2020 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, those that have pelagic larvae that must survive landing on the sediment, and those that brood their young. The long-term recovery observed after the 1970s can be ascribed to the decrease in sediment pollutants.

Publication Year 2023
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—2020
DOI 10.3133/ofr20231017
Authors Daniel J. Cain, Marie-Noële Croteau, Janet K. Thompson, Francis Parchaso, A. Robin Stewart, Emily L. Zierdt Smith, Kelly H. Shrader, Le H. Kieu, Samuel N. Luoma
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2023-1017
Index ID ofr20231017
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center; WMA - Earth System Processes Division