Lagrangian Mass-Flow Investigations of Inorganic Contaminants in Wastewater-Impacted Streams

Understanding the potential effects of increased reliance on wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) effluents to meet municipal, agricultural, and environmental flow requires an understanding of the complex chemical loading characteristics of the WWTPs and the assimilative capacity of receiving waters. Stream ecosystem effects are linked to proportions of WWTP effluent under low-flow conditions as well as the nature of the effluent chemical mixtures. This study quantifies the loading of 58 inorganic constituents (nutrients to rare earth elements) from WWTP discharges relative to upstream landscape-based sources. Stream assimilation capacity was evaluated by Lagrangian sampling, using flow velocities determined from tracer experiments to track the same parcel of water as it moved downstream. Boulder Creek, Colorado and Fourmile Creek, Iowa, representing two different geologic and hydrologic landscapes, were sampled under low-flow conditions in the summer and spring. One-half of the constituents had greater loads from the WWTP effluents than the upstream drainages, and once introduced into the streams, dilution was the predominant assimilation mechanism. Only ammonium and bismuth had significant decreases in mass load downstream from the WWTPs during all samplings. The link between hydrology and water chemistry inherent in Lagrangian sampling allows quantitative assessment of chemical fate across different landscapes.