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Water-quality trends of urban streams in Independence, Missouri, 2005–18

January 20, 2021

The U.S. Geological Survey and the city of Independence, Missouri, Water Pollution Control Department has studied the water quality and ecological condition of urban streams within Independence since 2005. Selected physical properties, nutrients, chloride, fecal indicator bacteria (Escherichia coli and total coliform), total dissolved solids, and suspended-sediment concentration data for base-flow and stormflow samples were used to document temporal trends in concentrations and flow-weighted concentrations; and annual loads were computed and investigated for selected nutrients, chloride, and suspended sediment. The six study sites included in this report are located on five urban streams: Rock Creek, a tributary in the city that drains to the Missouri River; three tributaries of the Little Blue River within the city (East Fork Little Blue River, Adair Creek, and Spring Branch Creek); and two sites on the main stem of the Little Blue River (one upstream from the city and one downstream from the three tributaries).

Many factors such as population, land use, and climate, and combinations of these factors contributed to the significant changes in the concentrations and transport of nutrients, chloride, fecal indicator bacteria, and suspended sediment in the urban streams within Independence. The population of Independence and the amount of developed land in the urban watersheds remained unchanged during the 2005–18 study. Differences were noted in precipitation and in streamflow during the study. Annual precipitation and streamflow were separated into two time periods within the study—period 1 (2006–10), having greater annual streamflow and precipitation, and period 2 (2011–18), having about 30 percent lower annual streamflow and less precipitation. Streamflow was an important factor in the transport of nitrogen, phosphorus, chloride, and suspended sediment from the urban watersheds. Changes in data collection methodology during the study period and improvements to the city stormwater and wastewater infrastructure also could have contributed to some of the trends. Between 2009 and 2015, more than 35 million dollars of improvements were made to stormwater and wastewater infrastructure within the city. These improvements, such as additional sewage overflow holding tanks, removal of septic tanks, and improved and expanded sanitary sewer lines and storm overflows, also could have affected the decreased nutrients and fecal indicator bacteria trends among the urban streams in the study area.

Models were used for analyzing streamflow-related variability in constituent concentrations and loads to determine if the water quality changed significantly during the study period. Trends in concentration data at four sites were analyzed using a statistical package called R–QWTREND and trends in load data were analyzed at six sites using a statistical package called Weighted Regressions on Time, Discharge, and Season-Kalman filter (WRTDS–K); both developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and publicly available for use.

Statistically significant trends in flow-weighted nutrient concentrations and loads generally were downward during the study period. The only nutrient compound with a statistically significant upward trend in flow-weighted concentration was dissolved orthophosphate as phosphorus at the Rock Creek site and the upstream site on the Little Blue River. A statistically significant downward trend in annual dissolved ammonia load was identified at the downstream Little Blue River site. A significant upward linear trend in annual orthophosphate as phosphorus load was identified on Adair Creek.

A statistically significant upward trend in dissolved chloride concentrations was identified at the downstream Little Blue River site. Road salt application near the site during the winter could have resulted in higher concentrated runoff during wet weather conditions. Annual chloride loads significantly decreased in Adair Creek and Spring Branch Creek. The mean annual chloride load transported in the drier (2011–18) period 2 was significantly less than during the wetter (2006–10) period 1, indicating that trends in precipitation runoff are an important factor in trends in annual transport of chloride.

Statistically significant downward trends in flow-weighted fecal indicator bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) population densities were noted for Rock Creek and the down-stream site on the Little Blue River. However, no trend was identified in E. coli population density at the upstream Little Blue River site. The downward trend in E. coli population density at the downstream site could be a result of decreased streamflow and precipitation over the study period, storage of fecal indicator bacteria in the Little Blue River streambed within the study area, die-off of fecal indicator bacteria during travel from upstream to downstream, changes in the sample collection methodology, improvements to the city’s storm-water and wastewater infrastructures, or a combination of these factors.

The statistically significant downward trend in suspended-sediment concentration identified at the upstream Little Blue River site could be affected by the decreased streamflow and precipitation during the study period, by changes in sampling methods within the study period, and by the decrease in construction and urban land development upstream from the city.

No statistically significant change was indicated in the annual suspended-sediment load transported from Independence to the Little Blue River during the study period. More than one-half the suspended sediment transported in the Little Blue River originated in the watershed upstream from Independence.

The Little Blue River and many of its tributaries that drain Independence have been designated as recreational waters classified for whole-body contact class B and secondary contact recreation, and some have been listed as impaired for E. coli by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources from urban runoff and storm sewers. Observations were made among the available E. coli population density data for both Little Blue River sites to further understand water-quality conditions over the study period. Both Little Blue River sites had similar medians and geometric means for the recreational season (April through October) and during the full study period, both of which are greater than the regulatory population density for both recreational classes. The Little Blue River drainage area nearly doubles in size from the upstream to downstream site; therefore, the consistent geometric mean and median of E. coli population densities at the upstream and downstream Little Blue River sites could be primarily due to the larger volume of streamflow creating a dilution effect. Other possible factors could be storage of fecal indicator bacteria in stream bed sediments, die-off of fecal indicator bacteria during transport, improvements to the city’s wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, changes to sampling methodology, or a combination of these factors. Specific sources of the E. coli are currently (2019) unknown.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2021
Title Water-quality trends of urban streams in Independence, Missouri, 2005–18
DOI 10.3133/sir20205130
Authors Miya N. Barr, Stephen J. Kalkhoff
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2020-5130
Index ID sir20205130
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Iowa Water Science Center; Missouri Water Science Center; Central Midwest Water Science Center