Low Flows and Downstream Decline in Phytoplankton Contribute to Impaired Water Quality in the Lower Minnesota River

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Water Research

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The underlying physical and biogeochemical mechanisms associated with low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels below 5 mg L−1 were examined through field data analyses and water quality modeling of the lower 40 miles of the Minnesota River. Insights into flow and water quality data of nineteen years (1999–2017) at five sites demonstrate that low DO levels parallel the obvious longitudinal (upstream-to-downstream) decline in phytoplankton biomass and increase in ammonium nitrogen (NH4) and dissolved orthophosphate (PO4) in the last 22-mile river reach (i.e., navigation channel) during late summer low flow conditions. River discharge is inversely related to the magnitude of the longitudinal change in DO, phytoplankton biomass, NH4 and PO4, indicating that the late summer low flow hydrodynamics in the navigation channel with a longer residence time, deeper water and slower velocity provide an extended opportunity for the biogeochemical reactions involving phytoplankton, DO and nutrients. Moreover, the ratio of the longitudinal decline in DO versus the longitudinal increase in NH4 is particularly close to the Redfield O:N ratio, suggesting that the decline in DO and increase in nutrients most likely result from the decomposition of phytoplankton detritus under aerobic conditions. This is further proved by the water quality modeling of the lower Minnesota River. The primary reasons for impaired water quality are substantially elevated sediment oxygen consumption and nutrient release derived from the decomposition of settled phytoplankton detritus in the navigation channel. Therefore, we recommend that active prevention of abrupt phytoplankton blooms and collapses through regulation of river discharge and local hydrodynamics may assist in maintaining acceptable water quality in eutrophic rivers with a high level of phytoplankton biomass.


© 2019 Published by Elsevier Ltd.



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