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Streamflow, water quality, and aquatic macroinvertebrates of selected streams in Fairfax County, Virginia, 2007-12

June 18, 2014

Efforts to mitigate the effects of urbanization on streams rely on best management practices (BMPs) that are implemented with the intent of reducing and retaining stormwater runoff. A cooperative monitoring effort between the U.S. Geological Survey and Fairfax County, Virginia, was initiated in 2007 to assess the condition of county streams and document watershed-scale responses to the implementation of BMPs. Assessment of the data collected during the first 5 years of this monitoring program focused on characterizing the hydrologic and ecological condition of 14 monitored streams.

Hydrologic, chemical, and macroinvertebrate community conditions in the streams monitored were found to be consistent, overall, with conditions commonly observed in urban streams. Hydrologically, the monitored streams were found to be flashy, with flashiness positively related to road cover in the watershed. Typical pH values of streams throughout the network centered around neutrality (pH = 7) with strong daily fluctuations apparent in the continuous data. Patterns in specific conductance were largely representative of anthropogenic disturbances—watersheds having the greatest percentage of open space and estate residential land-use had the lowest typical specific conductance values, and specific conductance variability was less than what is observed in watersheds that are more intensively developed. In watersheds having greater road coverage, and more development in general, increases in specific conductance over several orders of magnitude were observed during winter months as a result of the application of de-icing salts on impervious surfaces. Dissolved oxygen conditions were typically within the range required to support healthy biological communities, although occasional departures during summer months at some sites fell below the impairment threshold for streams in Virginia.

Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), concentration patterns were largely consistent across the network, with few exceptions. Nitrogen concentrations in monthly samples were generally low and dominated by nitrate. Exceptions to the generally low N concentrations occurred at Captain Hickory Run, which had a median total N concentration of approximately 4.9 milligrams per liter (mg/L), compared to the network-wide median of approximately 1.7 mg/L, and at Popes Head Creek Tributary, where total N concentrations spiked to 6–8 mg/L during low-flow periods in August or September of each year. Phosphorus concentrations in monthly samples were generally low and dominated by the dissolved fraction. Two monitoring stations in the network, Flatlick Branch and Frog Branch, are notable for having median total P concentrations that were, on average, approximately three times greater than the median total P concentration of 0.02 mg/L observed at the other 12 stations in the network.

Suspended-sediment and nutrient loads and yields were similar to those of urbanized watersheds in other studies, although the yields from these urbanized basins were greater than, or within, the upper quartile of yields observed throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Annual suspended-sediment loads ranged from 289–10,275 tons, with a median of 1,311 tons, and corresponding yields ranged from 107–2,827 tons per square mile (ton/mi2), with a median of 277 ton/mi2. Annual total N loads ranged from 8,014–36,413 pounds, with a median of 21,314 pounds, and corresponding yields ranged from 3,361–8,360 pounds per square mile (lb/mi2), with a median of 6,200 lb/mi2. Annual total P loads ranged from 380–6,558 pounds, with a median of 1,874 pounds, and corresponding yields ranged from 140–1,562 lb/mi2, with a median of 543 lb/mi2.

Benthic macroinvertebrate community metrics indicated that streams throughout Fairfax County are generally of poor health. One station, Castle Creek, was an exception with results indicating relatively high quality aquatic health.

Six additional monitoring stations were added to the network in 2012 to improve spatial coverage throughout Fairfax County. Monitoring activities are expected to continue at all 20 stations for the foreseeable future as BMP implementation is conducted.

Publication Year 2014
Title Streamflow, water quality, and aquatic macroinvertebrates of selected streams in Fairfax County, Virginia, 2007-12
DOI 10.3133/sir20145073
Authors John D. Jastram
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2014-5073
Index ID sir20145073
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Virginia Water Science Center