Physical, chemical, and biological aspects of the Duwamish River Estuary, King County, Washington, 1963-67

Water Supply Paper 1873-C




This report describes the significant results to 1967 of a comprehensive study that began in 1963 to evaluate what changes take place in an estuary as the loads .of raw and partially treated industrial and municipal wastes are replaced by effluent from a secondary treatment plant. The study area is the Duwamish River estuary, about 18.3 river kilometers long. At mean sea level the estuary has a water-surface area of about 1 square mile and a mean width of 440 feet. At the lowest and highest recorded tides, the volume of the estuary is about 205 and 592 million cubic feet, respectively. The estuary is well stratified (salt-wedge type) at fresh-water inflows greater than 1,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), but when inflow rates are less than 1,000 cfs the lower 5.6 kilometers of the estuary grades into the partly mixed type. The crosschannel salinity distribution is uniform for a given location and depth. Salinity migration is controlled by tides and fresh-water inflow. At fresh-water inflow rates greater than 1,000 cfs, water in the upper 8.4 kilometers of the estuary is always fresh regardless of tide. At inflow rates less than 600 cfs and tide heights greater than 10 feet; some salinity has been detected 16.1 kilometers above the mouth of the estuary. Studies using a fluorescent dye show that virtually no downward mixing into the salt wedge occurs; soluble pollutants introduced at the upper end of the estuary stay in the surface layer (5-15 ft thick). On the basis of dye studies when fresh-water inflow is less than 400 cfs, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of a pollutant will remain in the estuary a minimum of 7 days. Longitudinal dispersion coefficients for the surface layer have been determined to be on the order of 100-400 square feet per second. Four water-quality stations automatically monitor DO (dissolved oxygen), water temperature, pH, and specific conductance; at one station solar radiation also is measured. DO concentration in the surface layer decreases almost linearly in a downstream direction. Minimum DO concentration in the surface layer is usually greater than 4 rag/1 (milligrams per liter). The smallest DO values are consistently recorded in the bottom layer at the station 7.7 kilometers above the mouth; monthly means of less than 3 mg/1 of DO have occurred at this point. Manual sampling shows that the DO sag in the bottom layer oscillates between 7.7 and 10.4 kilometers above the mouth of the estuary. Multiple-regression analysis shows that the surface DO content can be estimated from the fresh-water inflow and water temperature. Tidal exchange and fresh-water inflow indirectly control the bottom DO content. Information available from previous studies failed to indicate a progressive decrease in DO content during the period 1949-56, but data from the present study suggest a slight general decrease in the annual minimum DO concentrations in both the upper and lower layers. Average nitrate concentration in fresh water at station 16.2 has increased progressively since 1964, by amounts greater than those which can be attributed to the Renton Treatment Plant, 4.3 kilometers upstream from station 16.2. The BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) in both surface and bottom layers is generally less than 4 rag/1 of oxygen, but values greater than 6 rag/1 have been measured during a period of phytoplankton bloom. Phytoplankton blooms can occur during periods of minimum tidal exchange and fresh-water inflows of less than 300 cfs if solar radiation and water temperature are optimum. Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus compounds) do not control the occurrence of a bloom, because sufficient quantities of these nutrients are always present. Nutrients in the treated effluent may increase the biomass of the bloom. Trace-element studies have not defined any role that these elements may play in algal growth. The inflowing fresh water contains principally calcium and bicarbonate and has a dissolved-solids content ra

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USGS Numbered Series
Physical, chemical, and biological aspects of the Duwamish River Estuary, King County, Washington, 1963-67
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Water Supply Paper
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U.S. Govt. Print. Off.,
vi, 74 p. :illus. ;24 cm.