Factors initiating phytoplankton blooms and resulting effects on dissolved oxygen in Duwamish River estuary, Seattle, Washington

Water Supply Paper 1873-A




Phytoplankton productivity, standing stock, and related environmental factors were studied during 1964-66 in the Duwamish River estuary, at Seattle, Wash., to ascertain the factors that affect phytoplankton growth in the estuary; a knowledge of these factors in turn permits the detection and evaluation of the influence that effluent nutrients have on phytoplankton production. The factors that control the concentration of dissolved oxygen were also evaluated because of the importance of dissolved oxygen to the salmonid populations that migrate through the estuary. Phytoplankton blooms, primarily of diatoms, occurred in the lower estuary during August 1965 and 1966. No bloom occurred during 1964, but the presence of oxygen-supersaturated surface water in August 1963 indicates that a bloom did occur then. Nutrients probably were not the primary factor controlling the timing of phytoplankton blooms. Ammonia ,and phosphate concentrations increased significantly downstream from the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle's Renton Treatment Plant outfall after the plant began operation in June 1965, and concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus were relatively high before operation of the Renton Treatment Plant and during nonbloom periods. The consistent coincidence of blooms with minimum fresh-water discharge and tidal exchange during August throughout the study period indicates that bloom timing probably was controlled mostly by hydrographic factors that determine retention time and stability of the surface-water layer. This control was demonstrated in part by a highly significant correlation of gross productivity with retention time (as indicated by fresh-water discharge) and vertical stability (as indicated by the difference between mean surface and mean bottom temperatures). The failure of a bloom to develop in 1964 is related to a minimum fresh-water discharge that was much greater than normal during that summer. Hydrographic factors are apparently important because, as shown by studies of other estuarine environments by other workers, phytoplankton production increases when the zone of vertical turbulent mixing is not markedly deeper than the compensation depth. Phytoplankton cells produced in the surface waters sink, thereby contributing oxidizable organic matter to the bottom saline-water wedge. The maximum BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) in this bottom wedge occurs in the same section of the estuary and ,at the same time as the maximum phytoplankton biomass (as indicated by chlorophyll a) and minimum DO (dissolved oxygen). Other sources of BOD occur in the estuary, and conditions of minimum discharge and tidal exchange assist in reducing DO. Nonetheless, the highly significant correlation of chlorophyll a with BOD throughout the summer indicates that respiration and decomposition of phytoplankton cells is dearly an important contributor of BOD. Increases in the biomass and resultant B0D of blooms because of increased effluent nutrients presumably would further decrease the concentration of DO. This possible effect of effluent nutrients was evaluated by laboratory .bioassays and by a comparison of mean annual biomasses in the estuary. A green algal population in vitro did increase in response to added effluent nutrients; however, the available field data suggest that a 46-percent increase in effluent discharge between 1965 and 1966 did not increase the estuary's phytoplankton biomass significantly.

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Factors initiating phytoplankton blooms and resulting effects on dissolved oxygen in Duwamish River estuary, Seattle, Washington
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Water Supply Paper
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U. S. Govt. Print. Off.,
v, 62 p. :ill. map ;24 cm.