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Water-quality and algal conditions in the North Umpqua River Basin, Oregon, 1992-95, and implications for resource management

January 1, 1998

This report describes the results of a synoptic water-quality and algal investigation during July 1995 at 36 stream sites in a 1,350 square-mile area of the North Umpqua River Basin, Oregon. The study area includes a headwaters hydroelectric project area, a Wild and Scenic reach in the main stem immediately downstream, and the watersheds of several major tributaries. Additional data from previous investigations are reviewed, and impacts on water quality in the Wild and Scenic reach from resource management, including forestry and reservoir operations, are inferred where sufficient data exist.

Water-quality standards were occasionally exceeded for dissolved oxygen and pH, and daily maximum stream temperatures in the Wild and Scenic reach were higher than both the 1996 standard for the State of Oregon and the optimal temperature ranges for many anadromous fish. Dissolved oxygen in the basin was controlled more by stream temperature and reaeration than by primary production. Arsenic concentrations in the river during low flow (1 µg/L [microgram per liter]) indicate a potential cancer risk of between 1:5,000 and 1:20,000 for people using the river as a source of drinking water and fish for consumption. Streambed-sediment concentrations of arsenic, chromium, copper, manganese, and nickel were approximately double the sediment-quality criteria values adopted by New York State and by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

High concentrations of phosphorus in bed sediments indicated that much of the phosphorus observed in the water column throughout the basin (medians: 32, 9, and 50 µg/L in the main stem, tributaries, and hydroelectric project areas, respectively) could have been geologically derived. Inorganic and organic nitrogen concentrations in water were mostly below minimum reporting limits (5 and 200 µg/L, respectively), indicating severe nitrogen limitation at most locations.

Benthic algal biomass, biovolume, and chlorophyll a concentrations were highest at the sites directly below impoundments and at one headwater tributary (medians: 46 grams per square meter, 821 million cubic micrometers per square centimeter, and 126 milligrams per square meter, respectively), and were also somewhat elevated downstream in the Wild and Scenic reach compared with those in similar streams in the Pacific Northwest. Classification of the algal taxa indicated that, among all sites sampled, alkaliphilic taxa, nitrogen fixing taxa, and eutrophic taxa were the most abundant on the basis of biovolume and density. Cold-water taxa, facultative nitrogen heterotrophs, and oligotrophic taxa constituted the remainder of the taxa. Multivariate analyses indicated that algal communities at the hydroelectric-project-affected sites were distinct from communities at sites on the main stem and Steamboat Creek. At many locations, the river’s algal community might be compensating for the low nitrogen concentrations by fixation of atmospheric nitrogen or through heterotrophic assimilation of organic nitrogen.

Water quality in the Wild and Scenic reach is dominated by water released from the hydroelectric project area during summer. Effects of the hydroelectric project include seasonal control of streamflow, water temperature, and phosphorus concentrations, and the possible release of low but ecologically important concentrations of organic nitrogen. A review of available data and literature suggests that the reservoirs can increase the interception of sediments and large organic debris, and promote their conversion into fine-grained particulate and dissolved organic matter for downstream transport. These effects could be compounded by the effects of forestry in the basin, including alteration of hydrologic cycles, changes in sediment and nutrient runoff, reductions of the transport of large woody debris, and degradation of habitat quality. It is hypothesized that, in the North Umpqua River, these processes have induced a fundamental shift in the river’s food web, from a detritus-based system to a system with a 2 higher emphasis on algal production. Confirmation of these changes and their effects on higher trophic levels are needed to properly manage the aquatic resources for all designated beneficial uses in the basin.

Publication Year 1998
Title Water-quality and algal conditions in the North Umpqua River Basin, Oregon, 1992-95, and implications for resource management
DOI 10.3133/wri984125
Authors Chauncey W. Anderson, Kurt D. Carpenter
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series Number 98-4125
Index ID wri984125
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Oregon Water Science Center