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Surface-water-quality data to support implementation of revised freshwater aluminum water-quality criteria in Massachusetts, 2018–19

April 12, 2022

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, performed a study to inform the development of the department’s guidelines for the collection and use of water-chemistry data to support calculation of site-dependent aluminum criteria values. The U.S. Geological Survey collected and analyzed discrete water-quality samples at four wastewater-treatment facilities and seven water-treatment facilities in eastern and central Massachusetts from April 2018 through May 2019.

For each of the 11 facilities considered, water-quality samples were collected from treatment-plant effluent and receiving-water bodies. Samples were collected for laboratory analysis of major ions (calcium and magnesium ions are used to calculate total hardness), dissolved organic carbon (DOC), total organic carbon (TOC), and total recoverable aluminum. Field parameters for pH, temperature, and specific conductance were measured in situ concurrently with sample collection.

Water-quality conditions differed among monitoring stations. The highest pH values were observed for stations on the Assabet River that receive effluent discharges from wastewater-treatment facilities (the Westborough, Marlborough, Hudson, and Maynard wastewater-treatment facilities). High DOC concentrations (greater than 10 mg/L) were measured in water bodies associated with large areas of riparian wetlands—Lily Pond (Cohasset) and Third Herring Brook (Hanover), and low DOC concentrations (less than 2.5 mg/L) were measured at three water bodies in central Massachusetts—Hocomonco Pond (Westborough), Wyman Pond (Fitchburg), and Monoosnoc Brook (Leominster). Wyman Pond (Fitchburg), Monoosnoc Brook (Leominster), and Lily Pond (Cohasset) also had low pH values and low total hardness concentrations.

The monthly discrete pH, DOC, and total hardness data for selected stations on receiving-water bodies were used in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Aluminum Criteria Calculator Version 2.0 to estimate site-dependent total recoverable aluminum concentrations that—if not exceeded—would be expected to protect fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic life from adverse effects associated with acute and chronic aluminum exposures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Calculator output provides values for the acute criterion, defined as the criterion maximum concentration (CMC), an estimate of the highest aluminum concentration in surface water to which an aquatic community can be exposed briefly without resulting in an unacceptable effect. This output also provides values for the chronic criterion, defined as the criterion continuous concentration (CCC), an estimate of the highest concentration of aluminum in surface water to which an aquatic community can be exposed indefinitely without resulting in an unacceptable effect. To determine aluminum criteria values typically evaluated for use as protective water-quality criteria, the monthly instantaneous CMC and CCC values were used to calculate the minimum, 5th percentile, and 10th percentile CMC and CCC values for selected monitoring stations.

The monthly instantaneous aluminum CMC and CCC values generated using the EPA Calculator varied among stations. Aluminum CMC and CCC values were highest for four ambient (upstream) stations on the Assabet River associated with wastewater-treatment facilities (Westborough, Marlboro, Hudson, and Maynard). Aluminum CMC and CCC values were lower for stations associated with water-treatment facilities, and lowest for selected ambient stations on Lily Pond, Monoosnoc Brook, and Wyman Pond associated with water-treatment facilities in Cohasset, Leominster, and Fitchburg, respectively. For many stations, the highest CMC and CCC instantaneous aluminum criteria values generated using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Calculator were for months during the growing season for algae and aquatic macrophytes (April or May through September or October) and the lowest values were for months during the nongrowing season (October or November through March or April), indicating the importance of collecting water-quality data during the nongrowing season.

Aluminum CMC and CCC values generated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Calculator are sensitive to variations in the input parameters (pH, DOC, and total hardness). Aluminum solubility is particularly affected by pH. To characterize diel and seasonal variations in pH, multiparameter water-quality monitors recording continuous (15-minute interval) water temperature and pH were installed in the receiving-water body for one station near each facility upstream from the effluent discharge (in rivers) or at a station outside the immediate effect of effluent discharge (in ponds). Continuous water temperature and pH data were collected from April or May 2018 through November or December 2018. Continuous pH data indicated that the pond stations and Assabet River stations had large diel variations in pH during the growing season. Continuous pH data were used together with discrete DOC and total hardness data to evaluate the potential effect of diel variations in pH on calculated site-dependent aluminum criteria values. For the 11 stations, diel variations in pH were determined to correspond to differences in the 10th percentile of CMC values by a median of 160 μg/L, ranging from 0 to 610 μg/L, and differences in the 10th percentile of CCC values by a median of 40 μg/L, ranging from 15 to 210 μg/L. The low monthly instantaneous CMC and CCC values that have the greatest effect on the minimum, 5th percentile, and 10th percentile aluminum values tend to result during the nongrowing season (October or November through March or April) when the range of diel variations in pH is small, thus minimizing the effect of diel variations in pH on the lowest CMC and CCC values.

Historical water-quality data on organic carbon in Massachusetts streams were investigated using data retrieved from the USGS National Water Information System database. An assessment of the availability of historical pH, DOC, and hardness data indicated that more data were available for TOC than for DOC. A linear regression equation was developed for the relation between DOC and TOC concentrations to inform the potential use of available data to evaluate water-quality conditions at additional sites across Massachusetts where only pH, hardness, and TOC data are available. DOC and TOC concentrations were well correlated in the 223 samples in which both constituents were analyzed, and the equation had a coefficient of determination (R2) equal to 0.93.