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Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5001


Prepared in cooperation with Clackamas River Water and the City of Lake Oswego


Sources and Characteristics of Organic Matter in the Clackamas River, Oregon, Related to the Formation of Disinfection By-Products in Treated Drinking Water


By Kurt D. Carpenter, Tamara E.C. Kraus, Jami H. Goldman, John Franco Saraceno, Bryan D. Downing, Brian A. Bergamaschi, Gordon McGhee, and Tracy Triplett

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (5.3 MB) Executive Summary


This study characterized the amount and quality of organic matter in the Clackamas River, Oregon, to gain an understanding of sources that contribute to the formation of chlorinated and brominated disinfection by-products (DBPs), focusing on regulated DBPs in treated drinking water from two direct-filtration treatment plants that together serve approximately 100,000 customers. The central hypothesis guiding this study was that natural organic matter leaching out of the forested watershed, in-stream growth of benthic algae, and phytoplankton blooms in the reservoirs contribute different and varying proportions of organic carbon to the river. Differences in the amount and composition of carbon derived from each source affects the types and concentrations of DBP precursors entering the treatment plants and, as a result, yield varying DBP concentrations and species in finished water. The two classes of DBPs analyzed in this study—trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs)—form from precursors within the dissolved and particulate pools of organic matter present in source water.


The five principal objectives of the study were to (1) describe the seasonal quantity and character of organic matter in the Clackamas River; (2) relate the amount and composition of organic matter to the formation of DBPs; (3) evaluate sources of DBP precursors in the watershed; (4) assess the use of optical measurements, including in-situ fluorescence, for estimating dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations and DBP formation; and (5) assess the removal of DBP precursors during treatment by conducting treatability “jar-test” experiments at one of the treatment plants.


Data collection consisted of (1) monthly sampling of source and finished water at two drinking-water treatment plants; (2) event-based sampling in the mainstem, tributaries, and North Fork Reservoir; and (3) in-situ continuous monitoring of fluorescent dissolved organic matter (FDOM), turbidity, chlorophyll-a, and other constituents to continuously track source-water conditions in near real-time. Treatability tests were conducted during the four event‑based surveys to determine the effectiveness of coagulant and powdered activated carbon (PAC) on the removal of DBP precursors. Sample analyses included DOC, total particulate carbon (TPC), total and dissolved nutrients, absorbance and fluorescence spectroscopy, and, for regulated DBPs, concentrations of THMs and HAAs in finished water and laboratory-based THM and HAA formation potentials (THMFP and HAAFP, respectively) for source water and selected locations throughout the watershed.


The results of this study may not be typical given the record and near record amounts of precipitation that occurred during spring that produced streamflow much higher than average in 2010–11. Although there were algal blooms, lower concentrations of chlorophyll-a were observed in the water column during the study period compared to historical data.


Concentrations of DBPs in finished (treated) water averaged 0.024 milligrams per liter (mg/L) for THMs and 0.022 mg/L for HAAs; maximum values were about 0.040 mg/L for both classes of DBPs. Although DBP concentrations were somewhat higher within the distribution system, none of the samples collected for this study or for the quarterly compliance monitoring by the water utilities exceeded levels permissible under existing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) regulations: 0.080 mg/L for THMs and 0.060 mg/L for HAAs.


DOC concentrations were generally low in the Clackamas River, typically about 1.0–1.5 mg/L. Concentrations in the mainstem occasionally increased to nearly 2.5 mg/L during storms; DOC concentrations in tributaries were sometimes much higher (up to 7.8 mg/L). The continuous in-situ FDOM measurements indicated sharp rises in DOC concentrations in the mainstem following rainfall events; concentrations were relatively stable during summer base flow. Even though the first autumn storm mobilized appreciable quantities of carbon, higher concentrations of DBPs in finished water were observed 3-weeks later, after the ground was saturated from additional rainfall.


The majority of the DOC in the lower Clackamas River appears to originate from the upper basin, suggesting terrestrial carbon was commonly the dominant source. Lower-basin tributaries typically contained the highest concentrations of DOC and DBP precursors and contributed substantially to the overall loads in the mainstem during storms. During low-flow periods, tributaries were not major sources of DOC or DBP precursors to the Clackamas River. 


Although the dissolved fraction of organic carbon contributed the majority of DBP precursors, at times the particulate fraction (inorganic sediment and organic particles including detritus and algal material) contributed a substantial fraction of DBP precursors. Considering just the main-stem sites, on average, 10 percent of THMFP and 32 percent of HAAFP were attributed to particulate carbon. This finding suggests water-treatment methods that remove particles prior to chlorination would reduce finished-water DBP concentrations to some degree.


Overall, concentrations of THM and HAA precursors were closely linked to DOC concentrations; laboratory DBP formation potentials (DBPFPs) clearly showed that THMFP and HAAFP were greatest in the downstream tributaries that contained elevated carbon concentrations. However, carbon-normalized “specific” formation potentials for THMs and HAAs (STHMFP and SHAAFP, respectively) revealed changes in carbon character over time that affected the two types of DBP classes differently. HAA precursors were elevated in waters containing aromatic-rich soil-derived material arising from forested areas. In contrast, THM precursors were associated with carbon having a lower aromatic content; highest STHMFP occurred in autumn 2011 in the mainstem from North Fork Reservoir downstream to LO DWTP. This pattern suggests the potential for a link between THM precursors and algal-derived carbon. The highest STHMFP value was measured within North Fork Reservoir, indicating reservoir derived carbon may be important for this class of DBPs. Weak correlations between STHMFP and SHAAFP emphasize that precursor sources for these types of DBPs may be different. This highlights not only that different locations within the watershed produce carbon with different reactivity (specific DBPFP), but also that different management approaches for each class of DBP precursors could be required for control.


Treatability tests conducted on source water during four basin-wide surveys demonstrated that an average of about 40 percent of DOC can be removed by coagulation. While the decrease in THMFP following coagulation was similar to DOC, the decrease in HAAFP was much greater (approximately 70 percent), indicating coagulation is particularly effective at removing HAA precursors—likely because of the aromatic nature of the carbon associated with HAA precursors. 


Several findings from this study have direct implications for managing drinking-water resources and for providing useful information that may help improve treatment-plant operations. For example, the use of in-situ fluorometers that measure FDOM provided an excellent proxy for DOC concentration in this system and revealed short-term, rapid changes in DOC concentration during storm events. In addition, the strong correlation between FDOM values measured in-situ and HAA5 concentrations in finished water may permit estimation of continuous HAA concentrations, as was done here. As part of this study, multiple in-situ FDOM sensors were deployed continuously and in real‑time to characterize the composition of dissolved organic matter. Although the initial results were promising, additional research and engineering developments will be needed to demonstrate the full utility of these sensors for this purpose.


In conclusion, although DBPFPs were strongly correlated to DOC concentration, some DBPs formed from particulate carbon, including terrestrial leaf material and algal material such as planktonic species of blue-green algae and sloughed filaments, stalks, and cells of benthic algae. Different precursor sources in the watershed were evident from the data, suggesting specific actions may be available to address some of these sources. In-situ measurements of FDOM proved to be an excellent proxy for DOC concentration as well as HAA formation during treatment, which suggests further development and refinement of these sensors have the potential to provide real-time information about complex watershed processes to operators at the drinking-water treatment plants.


Follow-up studies could examine the relative roles that terrestrial and algal sources have on the DBP precursor pool to better understand how watershed-management activities may be affecting the transport of these compounds to Clackamas River drinking-water intakes. Given the low concentrations of algae in the water column during this study, additional surveys during more typical river conditions could provide a more complete understanding of how algae contribute DBP precursors. Further development of FDOM-sensor technology can improve our understanding of carbon dynamics in the river and how concentrations may be trending over time.


This study was conducted in collaboration with Clackamas River Water and the City of Lake Oswego water utilities. Other research partners included Oregon Health and Science University in Hillsboro, Oregon, Alexin Laboratory in Tigard, Oregon, U.S. Geological Survey National Research Program Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, and the U.S. Geological Survey Water Science Centers in Portland, Oregon, and Sacramento, California. This project was supported with funding from Clackamas River Water, City of Lake Oswego, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Water Research Foundation. 


First posted February 11, 2013

For additional information contact:
Director, Oregon Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2130 SW 5th Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97201
http://or.water.usgs.gov

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Suggested citation:

Carpenter, K.D., Kraus, T.E.C., Goldman, J.H., Saraceno, J.F., Downing, B.D., McGhee, Gordon, and Triplett, Tracy, 2013, Sources and characteristics of organic matter in the Clackamas River, Oregon, related to the formation of disinfection by-products in treated drinking water: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5001, 78 p.



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