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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: 2008

October 8, 2009

Results reported herein include trace element concentrations in sediment and in the clam Macoma petalum (formerly reported as Macoma balthica (Cohen and Carlton, 1995)), clam reproductive activity, and benthic macroinvertebrate community structure for a mudflat one kilometer south of the discharge of the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant (PARWQCP) in South San Francisco Bay. This report includes data collected for the period January 2008 to December 2008 and extends a critical long-term biogeochemical record dating back to 1974. These data serve as the basis for the City of Palo Alto's Near-Field Receiving Water Monitoring Program, initiated in 1994.

In 2008, metal concentrations in both sediments and clam tissue were among the lowest concentrations on record and consistent with results observed since 1991. Following significant reductions in the late 1980's, silver (Ag) and copper (Cu) concentrations appeared to have stabilized. Annual mean concentrations have fluctuated modestly (2–4 fold) in a nondirectional manner. Data for other metals, including chromium, mercury, nickel, selenium, vanadium, and zinc, have been collected since 1994. Over this period, concentrations of these elements, which more likely reflect regional inputs and systemwide processes, have remained relatively constant, aside from typical seasonal variation that is common to all elements. Within years, concentrations generally reach maximum in winter months (January–March) and decline to annual minima in spring through fall. Mercury (Hg) in sediments spiked to the highest observed level in January 2008. However, sedimentary concentrations for the rest of the year and concentrations of Hg in M. petalum for the entire year were consistent with data from previous years. Average selenium (Se) concentrations in sediment were the highest on record, but there is no evidence, yet, to suggest a temporal trend of increasing sedimentary Se. Selenium in M. petalum was not elevated relative to past years. Overall, Cu and Ag concentrations in sediments and soft tissues of the clam, M. petalum, remained representative of the concentrations observed since 1991 following significant reductions in the discharge of these elements from PARWQCP, suggesting that, similar to other elements of regulatory interest, regional scale factors now largely influence sedimentary and bioavailable concentrations of Cu and Ag.

Analyses of the benthic-community structure of a mudflat in South San Francisco Bay over a 31-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 the reproductive activity 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, with almost all animals initiating reproduction in the fall and spawning the following spring of most years. The community has shifted from being dominated by several opportunistic species to a community where the species are more similar in abundance, a pattern that suggests a more stable community that is subjected to less stress. 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. Heteromastus filiformis, a subsurface polychaete worm that lives in the sediment, consumes sediment and organic particles residing in the sediment, and reproduces by laying their eggs on or in the sediment, has shown a concurrent increase in dominance and is now showing signs of population stability. An unidentified disturbance occurred on the mudflat in early 2008 that resulted in the loss of the benthic animals, except for those deep dwelling animals like Macoma petalum. Animals immediately returned to the mudflat, which is indicative that the disturbance was not due to a persistent toxin or due to anoxia. This event allows us to examine the response of the mudflat benthic community to a natural disturbance (possible causes include sediment accretion or freshwater inundation) and compare this recovery to the longer term recovery we observed in the 1970s.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2009
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: 2008
DOI 10.3133/ofr20091193
Authors Daniel J. Cain, Janet K. Thompson, Jessica Dyke, Francis Parcheso, Samuel N. Luoma, Michelle I. Hornberger
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2009-1193
Index ID ofr20091193
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program; Toxic Substances Hydrology Program