On an annual basis, river-supplied nitrate is the predominant form of nitrogen supplied to the tidal Potomac River from external sources. Much of the nitrate is associated with high flows that have rapid transit times through the tidal river. The Blue Plains Sewage-Treatment Plant (STP) at Washington, D.C., is the greatest source of all nitrogen species during low-flow periods. Prior to the fall of 1980, ammonia concentrations in depth-integrated, composited water samples were greatest (more than 1.00 mg/L (milligram per liter) as nitrogen) during summer periods near Alexandria, Va., because of loading from the nearby Blue Plains STP and reduced river discharge. After the fall of 1980, initiation of advanced wastewater treatment at the Blue Plains STP reduced ammonia loading to the river by 90 percent and increased nitrate loading by a similar percentage. As a result, concentrations of ammonia during the 1981 low-flow period were less than 0.20 mg/L as nitrogen at Alexandria, while nitrate concentrations were greater than 1.50 mg/L as nitrogen.
Concentrations of ammonia and nitrate at Alexandria were shown to be reasonably predictable by use of a simple dilution model that considers only loading from Chain Bridge and the Blue Plains STP. This apparently is the result of the short residence time through the Chain Bridge-to-Alexandria section of the tidal Potomac River, which precludes significant biological alterations. In marked contrast, the residence times of water parcels in the tidal Potomac River from Alexandria to Quantico, Va., are much greater because of the geometry of the reach. Biological nitrogen-cycle transformation processes affect nitrogen-species concentrations to a greater extent in this reach, especially during summer low-flow periods.
Mass-balance calculations that separate changes in transport mass from biological transformations indicatethat the tidal Potomac River was a net sink for all the nitrogen constituents during the 1980 and 1981 summer low-flow periods. However, during the 1980-81 winter period, some ammonia and nitrate was transported out of the tidal Potomac River into the transition zone. Despite the reduced availability of ammonia, nitrogen-15 uptake studies showed that phytoplankton preferred ammonia to nitrate unless ammonia concentrations were less than 0.10 mg/L as nitrogen. Nitrification-rate studies during 1981 using a carbon-14 uptake technique indicate that rates did not vary with sample location, except for one sample from the head of the tidal river, where the rates were much higher. The numbers of Nitrobacter bacteria were highest in samples from near the Blue Plains STP and were greater than the numbers of Nitrosomonas bacteria. The predominance of Nitrobacter bacteria seemed to be associated with advanced wastewater treatment at the Blue Plains STP. Before advanced wastewater treatment, Nitrosomonas were numerically predominant and had the largest numbers near the Blue Plains STP. These results could be due to (1) loading of nitrifying bacteria in the Blue Plains sewage effluent that had been inhibited from further growth by an inhibitory substance or (2) the method used to measure nitrification rates, which measured only the ammonia oxidation stage; it is not possible to reject either mechanism on the basis of the data available.
Process models were used in conjunction with mass-balance determinations and individual process studies to estimate rates of processes that were not directly measured. It is estimated that denitrification removed 10 times as much nitrate from the water column during the summer of 1981 as during the summer of 1980. Sedimentation of particulate nitrogen is estimated to be the largest sink for nitrogen from the water column and was approximately equal to the external annual loading of all nitrogen constituents on a daily basis. In summer, when river flows usually are low, the tidal Potomac River appears to be a partially closed system rather tha
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Nitrogen dynamics in the tidal freshwater Potomac River, Maryland and Virginia, water years 1979-81
Water Supply Paper
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