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Water quality and bed sediment quality in the Albemarle Sound, North Carolina, 2012–14

January 23, 2017

The Albemarle Sound region was selected in 2012 as one of two demonstration sites in the Nation to test and improve the design of the National Water Quality Monitoring Council’s National Monitoring Network (NMN) for U.S. Coastal Waters and Tributaries. The goal of the NMN for U.S. Coastal Waters and Tributaries is to provide information about the health of our oceans, coastal ecosystems, and inland influences on coastal waters for improved resource management. The NMN is an integrated, multidisciplinary, and multi-organizational program using multiple sources of data and information to augment current monitoring programs.

This report presents and summarizes selected water-quality and bed sediment-quality data collected as part of the demonstration project conducted in two phases. The first phase was an occurrence and distribution study to assess nutrients, metals, pesticides, cyanotoxins, and phytoplankton communities in the Albemarle Sound during the summer of 2012 at 34 sites in Albemarle Sound, nearby sounds, and various tributaries. The second phase consisted of monthly sampling over a year (March 2013 through February 2014) to assess seasonality in a more limited set of constituents including nutrients, cyanotoxins, and phytoplankton communities at a subset (eight) of the sites sampled in the first phase. During the summer of 2012, few constituent concentrations exceeded published water-quality thresholds; however, elevated levels of chlorophyll a and pH were observed in the northern embayments and in Currituck Sound. Chlorophyll a, and metals (copper, iron, and zinc) were detected above a water-quality threshold. The World Health Organization provisional guideline based on cyanobacterial density for high recreational risk was exceeded in approximately 50 percent of water samples collected during the summer of 2012. Cyanobacteria capable of producing toxins were present, but only low levels of cyanotoxins below human health benchmarks were detected. Finally, 12 metals in surficial bed sediments were detected at levels above a published sediment-quality threshold. These metals included chromium, mercury, copper, lead, arsenic, nickel, and cadmium. Sites with several metal concentrations above the respective thresholds had relatively high concentrations of organic carbon or fine sediment (silt plus clay), or both and were predominantly located in the western and northwestern parts of the Albemarle Sound.

Results from the second phase were generally similar to those of the first in that relatively few constituents exceeded a water-quality threshold, both pH and chlorophyll a were detected above the respective water-quality thresholds, and many of these elevated concentrations occurred in the northern embayments and in Currituck Sound. In contrast to the results from phase one, the cyanotoxin, microcystin was detected at more than 10 times the water-quality threshold during a phytoplankton bloom on the Chowan River at Mount Gould, North Carolina in August of 2013. This was the only cyanotoxin concentration measured during the entire study that exceeded a respective water-quality threshold.

The information presented in this report can be used to improve understanding of water-quality conditions in the Albemarle Sound, particularly when evaluating causal and response variables that are indicators of eutrophication. In particular, this information can be used by State agencies to help develop water-quality criteria for nutrients, and to understand factors like cyanotoxins that may affect fisheries and recreation in the Albemarle Sound region.

Publication Year 2017
Title Water quality and bed sediment quality in the Albemarle Sound, North Carolina, 2012–14
DOI 10.3133/ofr20161171
Authors Michelle C. Moorman, Sharon A. Fitzgerald, Laura N. Gurley, Ahmed Rhoni-Aref, Keith A. Loftin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2016-1171
Index ID ofr20161171
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization North Carolina Water Science Center