Elevated phosphorus concentrations commonly promote excessive growth of algae in waters nationwide. When such waters are used for public supply, the algae can plug filters during treatment and impart tastes and odors to the finished water. This increases treatment costs and results in finished water that may not be of the quality desired for public supply. Consequently, copper sulfate is routinely applied to many reservoirs to control algal growth but only is a 'temporary fix' and must be reapplied at intervals that can range from more than 30 days in the winter to less than 7 days in the summer. Because copper has a maximum allowable concentration in public drinking water and can be toxic to aquatic life, water suppliers commonly seek to develop alternative, long-term strategies for managing reservoirs. Because these are nationwide issues and part of the mission of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is to define and protect the quality of the Nation's water resources and better understand the physical, chemical, and biological processes in wetlands, lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries, investigations into these issues are important to the fulfillment of the mission of the USGS.
The City of Newport News, Virginia, provides 50 million gallons per day of treated water for public supply from Lee Hall and Harwoods Mill Reservoirs (terminal reservoirs) to communities on the lower York-James Peninsula. About 3,500 pounds of copper sulfate are applied to each reservoir at 3- to 99-day intervals to control algal growth. Consequently, the USGS, in cooperation with the City of Newport News, investigated the effects of management practices and natural processes on phosphorus (the apparent growth-limiting nutrient), copper, and algal concentrations in the terminal reservoirs to provide information that can be used to develop alternative management strategies for the terminal reservoirs.
Initial parts of the research evaluated circulation and stratification in the reservoirs because these factors affect phosphorus availability to algae. Results indicate that (1) water flows through both reservoirs in a 'plug-flow' manner; (2) little water in the lower part of Lee Hall Reservoir, into which pumped water enters, flows into the upper part of the reservoir and mixes with that water; (3) Lee Hall Reservoir generally does not stratify; and (4) Harwoods Mill Reservoir stratifies from April to June through September or October into an upper epilimnion that does not mix with water in the lower hypolimnion.
The ratio of dissolved nitrogen to phosphorus concentrations (N:P) for sites in both reservoirs generally was greater than 20:1, indicating that phosphorus likely is the growth-limiting nutrient in both reservoirs. Phosphorus was present predominantly as suspended, rather than dissolved, species except in the hypolimnion of Harwoods Mill Reservoir and the natural inflow represented by Baptist Run. Because Harwoods Mill Reservoir stratified, field-measured physical and chemical characteristics and concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus species changed sharply over short depth intervals in this reservoir. Dissolved phosphorus concentration increased from 0.015 to 0.057 milligrams per liter between a depth of 15 feet (ft) and the bottom (depth of 18 ft), indicating the release of phosphorus by the decomposition of organic material and(or) the reduction of iron oxides in bed sediment and the lower water column. Because the mixing boundary between the epilimnion and the hypolimnion likely was between depths of 6 and 10 ft, such sources in the hypolimnion would not contribute phosphorus to the growth of algae in the epilimnion from which water is withdrawn for supply until the breakdown of stratification in the fall. Furthermore, laboratory studies of samples from both reservoirs indicated that dissolved phosphorus was released from suspended particles at rates of 0.0007 to 0.0019 milligrams per liter per day. At these rates of release, particl