Purpose: Wastewater effluent discharged into rivers from sewage treatment works (STWs) represents one of the most important point sources of soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) pollution and is a major driver of freshwater eutrophication. In this study, we assess the ability of riverbed sediments to act as a self-regulating buffering system to reduce SRP dissolved in the water column downstream of STW outflows.
Materials and methods: River water and riverbed sediment samples were collected from 10 tributary outlets across the River Wensum catchment, Norfolk, UK, at monthly intervals between July and October 2016, such that 40 sediment and 40 water samples were collected in total. Of these locations, five were located downstream of STWs and five were on tributaries without STWs. Dissolved SRP concentrations were analysed and the Equilibrium Phosphorus Concentration (EPC0) of each sediment sample was measured to determine whether riverbed sediments were acting as net sources or sinks of SRP.
Results and discussion: The mean SRP concentration downstream of STWs (382 µg P L-1) was double that of sites without a STW (185 µg P L-1), whilst the mean EPC0 for effluent impacted sites (105 µg P L-1) was 70% higher than that recorded at unaffected sites (62 µg P L-1). Regardless of STW influence, riverbed sediments across all 10 sites almost always acted as net sinks for SRP from the overlying water column. This was particularly true at sites downstream of STWs which displayed enhanced potential to buffer the river against increases in SRP released in sewage effluent.
Conclusions: Despite EPC0 values revealing riverbed sediments were consistently acting as sinks for SRP, elevated SRP concentrations downstream of STWs clearly demonstrate the sediments have insufficient SRP sorption capacity to completely buffer the river against effluent discharge. Consequently, SRP concentrations across the catchment continue to exceed recommended standards for good chemical status, thus emphasising the need for enhanced mitigation efforts at STWs to minimise riverine phosphorus loading.