Developing environment-specific water quality guidelines for suspended particulate matter

Bilotta, G.S.; Burnside, N.G.; Cheek, L.; Dunbar, M.J.; Grove, M.K.; Harrison, C.; Joyce, C.; Peacock, C.; Davy-Bowker, J.. 2012 Developing environment-specific water quality guidelines for suspended particulate matter. Water Research, 46 (7). 2324-2332.

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It is generally well recognised that suspended particulate matter (SPM), from nano-scale particles to sand-sized sediments, can cause serious degradation of aquatic ecosystems. However, at present there is a poor understanding of the SPM conditions that water quality managers should aim to achieve in contrasting environments in order to support good ecological status. In this article, we analyse long-term SPM data collected from a wide range of reference-condition temperate environments in the UK (638 stream/river sites comprising 42 different ecosystem-types). One-way analysis of variance reveals that there is a statistically significant difference (p < 0.001) between the background SPM concentrations observed in contrasting ecosystems that are in reference condition (minimal anthropogenic disturbance). One of the 42 ecosystems studied had mean background concentrations of SPM in excess of the current European Union (EU) water quality guideline, despite being in reference condition. The implications of this finding are that the EU’s current blanket water quality guideline (25 mg L−1 for all environments) is inappropriate for this specific ecosystem-type which will be non-compliant with the guideline regardless of the intensity of land-use. The other 41 ecosystems studied had mean concentrations below the current EU water quality guideline. However, this does not necessarily mean that the guideline is appropriate for these ecosystems, as previous research has demonstrated that detrimental impacts can be experienced by some freshwater organisms, of all trophic levels, when exposed to concentrations below 25 mg L−1. Therefore, it is suggested here that it is likely that some ecosystems, particularly those with mean concentrations in the 0.00–5.99 mg L−1 range, require much lower guideline values in order to be effectively protected. We propose a model for predicting environment-specific water quality guidelines for SPM. In order to develop this model, the 638 reference condition sites were first classified into one of five mean background SPM ranges (0.00–5.99, 6.00–11.99, 12.00–17.99, 18.00–23.99 and >24.00 mg L−1). Stepwise Multiple Discriminant Analysis (MDA) of these ranges showed that a site’s SPM range can be predicted as a function of: mean annual air temperature, mean annual precipitation, mean altitude of upstream catchment, distance from source, slope to source, channel width and depth, the percentage of catchment area comprised of clay, chalk, and hard rock solid geology, and the percentage of the catchment area comprised of blown sand as the surface (drift) material. The MDA technique, with cross-validation (Wilks-Lambda 0.358, p 0.000), can predict the correct or the next closest SPM range of a site in 90% of cases. This technique can also predict SPM range membership in a probabilistic manner, allowing for an estimate of uncertainty to be made in the allocation of a site to an environment-specific SPM range.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
Programmes: CEH Topics & Objectives 2009 - 2012 > Water
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Acreman
ISSN: 0043-1354
Additional Keywords: suspended sediment, suspended solids, suspended particulate matter, ecosystem-specific, water quality guidelines, reference-condition
Date made live: 17 Jan 2013 15:03 +0 (UTC)

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