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From its headwaters in Westborough, Massachusetts, to its confluence with the Sudbury River, the 53-kilometer-long Assabet River passes through a series of small towns and mixed land-use areas. Along the way, wastewater-treatment plants release nutrient-rich effluents that contribute to the eutrophic state of this waterway. This condition is most obvious where the river is impounded by a series of dams that have sequestered large amounts of sediment and support rooted and floating macrophytes and epiphytic algae. The water in parts of these impoundments may also have low concentrations of dissolved oxygen, another symptom of eutrophication.
All of the impoundments had relatively shallow maximum water depths, which ranged from approximately 2.4 to 3.4 meters, and all had extensive shallow areas. Sediment volumes estimated for the six impoundments ranged from approximately 380 cubic meters in the Aluminum City impoundment to 580,000 cubic meters in the Ben Smith impoundment. The other impoundments had sediment volumes of 120,000 cubic meters (Powdermill), 67,000 cubic meters (Gleasondale), 55,000 cubic meters (Hudson), and 42,000 cubic meters (Allen Street).
The principal objective of this study was the determination of sediment volume, extent, and chemistry, in particular, the characterization of toxic inorganic and organic chemicals in the sediments. To determine the bulk-sediment chemical-constituent concentrations, more than one hundred sediment cores were collected in pairs from the six impoundments. One core from each pair was sampled for inorganic constituents and the other for organic constituents. Most of the cores analyzed for inorganics were sectioned to provide information on the vertical distribution of analytes; a subset of the cores analyzed for organics was also sectioned. Approximately 200 samples were analyzed for inorganic constituents and 100 for organics; more than 10 percent were quality-control replicate or blank samples.
Maximum bulk-sediment phosphorus concentrations in surface samples from the impoundments increased along a downstream gradient, with the exception of samples from the last impoundment, where the concentrations decreased. In addition, the highest phosphorus concentrations were generally in the surface samples; this finding may prove helpful if surface dredging is selected as a means to control phosphorus release from sediments. There is no known relation, however, between bulk-sediment concentration of phosphorus and the concentrations of phosphorus available to biota.
Potentially toxic metals, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, and zinc were frequently measured at concentrations that exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sediment-quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life and that occasionally exceeded Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection guidelines governing landfill disposal (reuse). Due to the effects of matrix interference and sample dilution on laboratory analyses, neither pesticides nor volatile organic compounds were detected at any sites. However, samples collected in other studies from nearby streams indicated the possibility that pesticides might have been detected in the impoundments if not for these analytical problems. Although polychlorinated biphenyl concentrations, as individual Aroclors, generally exceeded published U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guideline concentrations for potential effects on aquatic life, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guideline concentrations for human contact or the Massachusetts guidelines for landfill reuse were rarely exceeded. Concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both individually and total, frequently were greater than guideline concentrations. Concentrations of total extractable petroleum hydrocarbons did not exceed Massachusetts guideline concentrations in any samples.
When the sediment analytes from surface samples are considered togethe
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USGS Numbered Series
Sediment studies in the Assabet River, central Massachusetts, 2003