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Water-quality conditions with an emphasis on cyanobacteria and associated toxins and taste-and-odor compounds in the Kansas River, Kansas, July 2012 through September 2016

July 2, 2018

Cyanobacteria cause a multitude of water-quality concerns, including the potential to produce toxins and taste-and-odor compounds that may cause substantial economic and public health concerns, and are of particular interest in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers that are used for drinking-water supply. Extensive cyanobacterial blooms typically do not develop in the Kansas River; however, reservoirs in the lower Kansas River Basin occasionally develop blooms that may affect downstream water quality. During July 2012 through September 2016, continuous and (or) discrete water-quality data were collected at several sites (Wamego, De Soto, and three main reservoir-fed tributaries) on the Kansas River to characterize the sources, frequency and magnitude of occurrence, and causes of cyanobacteria, cyanobacterial toxins, and taste-and-odor compounds and to develop a real-time notification system of changing water-quality conditions that may affect drinking-water treatment.

Algal biomass, as estimated by chlorophyll, was consistently higher at the downstream De Soto site than the upstream Wamego site. Higher algal biomass at the De Soto site likely was caused by algal growth during downstream transport without major losses due to grazing by aquatic organisms or other processes. Algal biomass at the Wamego and De Soto sites was negatively correlated with streamflow and total and bioavailable nutrient concentrations. The negative association between algal biomass and nutrients in the Kansas River likely reflects the relatively strong positive association between nutrient concentrations and streamflows.

Cyanobacteria were relatively common in the Kansas River but rarely dominated the algal community. Like overall algal biomass, cyanobacterial abundances typically were higher at the De Soto site than the Wamego site. Cyanobacterial abundances generally peaked in late summer or early fall (July through October), with smaller peaks occasionally observed in spring (April through May). Cyanobacteria in the Kansas River rarely exceeded 20,000 cells per milliliter, the abundance at which cyanobacteria may become a concern for drinking-water treatment. Relations between cyanobacterial abundance and streamflow, turbidity, and nutrients in the Kansas River were similar to those between chlorophyll and total phytoplankton abundance, indicating the same processes that influence overall algal biomass and dynamics also are influencing cyanobacteria.

The cyanotoxin microcystin was detected in about 27 percent of the samples collected from Kansas River tributary and main-stem sites. Cylindrospermopsin was detected in one sample from the De Soto site. Microcystin occurrence and concentration were similar between the Wamego and De Soto sites. Concentrations exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory guidance values for finished drinking water of 0.3 (for bottle-fed infants and pre-school children) and 1.6 micrograms per liter (μg/L; for school-age children and adults) in 6 percent or less of samples collected. These guidance values are for finished drinking water and are not directly applicable to observed environmental concentrations but do provide a benchmark for comparison. Microcystin was detected most often and had the highest concentrations during summer. Though seasonal patterns in microcystin occurrence were generally consistent, seasonal maxima varied by an order of magnitude across years.

The taste-and-odor compounds geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol (MIB) were detected in about 78 and 43 percent of samples, respectively, collected across all sites (main stem and tributaries). Geosmin and MIB occurrence and concentration varied considerably between the Wamego and De Soto sites. Geosmin was detected in about 67 percent of Wamego samples and 81 percent of De Soto samples. The human detection threshold of 5 nanograms per liter (ng/L) was exceeded for geosmin in about 11 and 17 percent of the samples collected at the Wamego and De Soto sites, respectively. Geosmin was detected during all months of the year at both sites, and there were no clear seasonal patterns. MIB was detected less frequently in the Kansas River than geosmin and was observed in about 42 percent of Wamego samples and 33 percent of De Soto samples. Concentrations exceeded 5 ng/L in about 7 and 5 percent of samples from the Wamego and De Soto sites, respectively. As observed for geosmin, there were no clear seasonal patterns in MIB occurrence or concentration.

There seems to be a connection between microcystin detections in the Kansas River and occurrence of microcystin in upstream reservoirs (and tributary streams). Microcystin concentrations greater than 0.3 μg/L may be likely during the summer when streamflow is less than 3,000 cubic feet per second (ft3/s) and contributions from Milford Lake exceed about 30 percent of total flow in the Kansas River. Observed microcystin concentrations typically were higher at the De Soto site than the Wamego or tributary sites during 2012 through 2016, indicating cyanobacteria may continue to grow and produce microcystin once introduced to the Kansas River.

The spatial and temporal patterns in geosmin and MIB occurrence and concentration were more complex than microcystin. There were no clear connections between geosmin and MIB occurrence in the Kansas River and potential upstream reservoir (or tributary stream) sources. Likewise, there was not a clear relation between algal biomass, cyanobacteria, or actinomycetes bacteria and taste-and-odor events in the Kansas River. Geosmin and MIB were not strongly correlated with any measured environmental variable at either Kansas River site.

Continuous water-quality data may be used independently or in combination with regression models to provide information on changing water-quality conditions that may affect drinking-water treatment processes or recreational activities on the Kansas River. For example, logistic regression model outputs and continuous water-quality data may both be indicative of the potential for microcystin events. Logistic regression models that are estimating a high probability of microcystin occurrence at concentrations above 0.1 μg/L can be used as one indicator. Streamflows less than 3,000 ft3/s during upstream reservoir releases during periods with low turbidity and increased chlorophyll fluorescence, specific conductance, and pH values may also be indicative of microcystin events. Advanced or near-real-time notification may inform proactive, rather than reactive, management strategies when water-quality conditions are changing rapidly or are likely to cause cyanobacteria-related events.