Wastewater discharges to the Assabet River contribute substantial amounts of phosphorus, which support accumulations of nuisance aquatic plants that are most evident in the river’s impounded reaches during the growing season. To restore the Assabet River’s water quality and aesthetics, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required the major wastewater-treatment plants in the drainage basin to reduce the amount of phosphorus discharged to the river by 2012. From October 2008 to December 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and in support of the requirements of the Total Maximum Daily Load for Phosphorus, collected weekly flow-proportional, composite samples for analysis of concentrations of total phosphorus and orthophosphorus upstream and downstream from each of the Assabet River’s two largest impoundments: Hudson and Ben Smith. The purpose of this monitoring effort was to evaluate conditions in the river before enhanced treatment-plant technologies had effected reductions in phosphorus loads, thereby defining baseline conditions for comparison with conditions following the mandated load reductions. The locations of sampling sites with respect to the impoundments enabled examination of the impoundments’ effects on phosphorus sequestration and on the transformation of phosphorus between particulate and dissolved forms. The study evaluated the differences between loads upstream and downstream from the impoundments throughout the sampling period and compared differences during two seasonal periods of relevance to aquatic plants: April 1 through October 31, the growing season, and November 1 through March 31, the nongrowing season, when existing permit limits allowed average monthly wastewater-treatment-plant-effluent concentrations of 0.75 milligram per liter (growing season) or 1.0 milligram per liter (nongrowing season) for total phosphorus. At the four sampling sites during the growing season, median weekly total phosphorus loads ranged from 110 to 190 kilograms (kg) and median weekly orthophosphorus loads ranged from 17 to 41 kg. During the nongrowing season, median weekly total phosphorus loads ranged from 240 to 280 kg and median weekly orthophosphorus loads ranged from 56 to 66 kg.
During periods of low and moderate streamflow, estimated loads of total phosphorus upstream from the Hudson impoundment generally exceeded those downstream during the same sampling periods throughout the study; orthophosphorus loads downstream from the impoundment were typically larger than those upstream. When storm runoff substantially increased the streamflow, loads of total phosphorus and orthophosphorus both tended to be larger downstream than upstream.
At the Ben Smith impoundment, both total phosphorus and orthophosphorus loads were generally larger downstream than upstream during low and moderate streamflow, but the differences were not as pronounced as they were at the Hudson impoundment. High flows were also associated with substantially larger total phosphorus and orthophosphorus loads downstream than those entering the impoundment from upstream.
In comparing periods of growing- and nongrowing-season loads, the same patterns of loads entering and leaving were observed at both impoundments. That is, at the Hudson impoundment, total phosphorus loads entering the impoundment were greater than those leaving it, and orthophosphorus loads leaving the impoundment were greater than those entering it. At the Ben Smith impoundment, both total phosphorus and orthophosphorus loads leaving the impoundment were greater than those entering it. However, the loads were greater during the nongrowing seasons than during the growing seasons, and the net differences between upstream and downstream loads were about the same.
The results indicate that some of the particulate fraction of the total phosphorus loads is sequestered in the Hudson impoundment, where particulate phosphorus probably undergoes some physical and biogeochemical transformations to the dissolved form orthophosphorus. The orthophosphorus may be taken up by aquatic plants or transported out of the impoundments. The results for the Ben Smith impoundment are less clear and suggest net export of total phosphorus and orthophosphorus. Differences between results from the two impoundments may be attributable in part to differences in their sizes, morphology, unmonitored tributaries, riparian land use, and processes within the impoundments that have not been quantified for this study.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Monitoring to assess progress toward meeting the total maximum daily load for phosphorus in the Assabet River, Massachusetts: phosphorus loads, 2008 through 2010