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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; 2015

July 22, 2016

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, California. This report includes data collected by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists for the period from January 2015 to December 2015. These data are appended to long-term datasets extending back to 1974, and serve as the basis for the City of Palo Alto’s Near-Field Receiving Water Monitoring Program, initiated in 1994.

Following significant reductions in the late 1980s, silver (Ag) and copper (Cu) concentrations in sediment and M. petalum appear to have stabilized. 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 2015, concentrations of Ag and Cu 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. In M. petalum, all observed elements showed annual maxima in January–February and minima in April, except for Zn, which was lowest in December. In sediments, annual maxima also occurred in January–February, and minima were measured in June and September. In 2015, metal concentrations in both sediments and clam tissue were among the lowest on record. This record suggests that regional-scale factors now largely control sedimentary and bioavailable concentrations of Ag and Cu, as well as other elements of regulatory interest, at the Palo Alto site.

Analyses of the benthic community structure at the same mudflat 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 (2015), 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 2015. 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 an increase in dominance, concurrent with the decrease in Ag and Cu concentrations, 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 abundance in 2015. 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 M. 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 to anoxia. The reproductive mode of most species present in 2015 is reflective of species that were available either as pelagic larvae or as mobile adults. Although oviparous (live-birth) 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 2015 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.

Publication Year 2016
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; 2015
DOI 10.3133/ofr20161118
Authors Daniel J. Cain, Janet K. Thompson, Jeffrey Crauder, Francis Parchaso, A. Robin Stewart, Matthew A. Turner, Michelle I. Hornberger, Samuel N. Luoma
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2016-1118
Index ID ofr20161118
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Western Branch