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U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1163

Prepared in cooperation with the City of Palo Alto, California

Near-Field Receiving Water Monitoring of Trace Metals and a Benthic Community near the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant in South San Francisco Bay, California: 2010

By Jessica L. Dyke, Francis Parchaso, Janet K. Thompson, Daniel J. Cain, Samuel N. Luoma, and Michelle I. Hornberger

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (2.7 MB)Abstract

Trace-metal concentrations in sediment and in the clam Macoma petalum (formerly reported as Macoma balthica), clam reproductive activity, and benthic macroinvertebrate community structure were investigated in a mudflat 1 kilometer south of the discharge of the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant (PARWQCP) in South San Francisco Bay, Calif. This report includes the data collected for the period January 2010 to December 2010 and extends a critical long-term biogeochemical record that dates back to 1974. These data serve as the basis for the City of Palo Alto’s Near-Field Receiving Water Monitoring Program initiated in 1994.

In 2010, metal concentrations in both sediments and clam tissue were among the lowest concentrations on record and consistent with results observed since 1991. Following significant reductions in the late 1980s, silver (Ag) and copper (Cu) concentrations appear to have stabilized. Annual mean concentrations have fluctuated modestly (2–4 fold) in a nondirectional manner. Data for other metals, including chromium, mercury, nickel, selenium, vanadium, and zinc, have been collected since 1994. Over this period, concentrations of these elements, which likely reflect regional inputs and systemwide processes, have remained relatively constant, aside from typical seasonal variation that is common to all elements. Within years, the winter months (January–March) generally exhibit maximum concentrations, with a decline to annual minima in spring through fall. Concentrations of chromium (Cr) and vanadium (V) in sediments have shown an upward trend since 2005. Chromium concentrations are approaching the record maximum levels observed in 2003, and concentrations of V in sediments in 2010 were the highest annual average concentrations on record. Mercury (Hg) concentrations in sediments and M. petalum in 2010 were comparable to concentrations observed in 2009 and were generally consistent with data from previous years. Selenium (Se) concentrations in sediment varied among years and showed no sustained temporal trend. During 2009–2010, sedimentary Se concentrations declined from the record high observed in 2008 to concentrations that were among the lowest on record. Selenium in M. petalum was slightly higher in 2010 than in 2009. Overall, Cu and Ag concentrations in sediments and soft tissues of the clam, M. petalum, remained representative of the concentrations observed since 1991 following significant reductions in the discharge of these elements from the PARWQCP. This indicates that, as with other elements of regulatory interest, regional-scale factors now largely affect sedimentary and bioavailable concentrations of Ag and Cu.

Analyses of the benthic community structure of a mudflat in South San Francisco Bay over a 37-year period show that changes in the community have occurred concurrent with reduced concentrations of metals in the sediment and in the tissues of the biosentinel clam, M. petalum, from the same area. Analysis of the M. petalum community shows increases in reproductive activity concurrent with the decline in metal concentrations in the tissues of this organism. Reproductive activity is presently stable (2010), with almost all animals initiating reproduction in the fall and spawning the following spring of most years. The community has shifted from being dominated by several opportunistic species to a community where the species are more similar in abundance, a pattern that indicates a more stable community that is subjected to fewer stressors. In addition, two of the opportunistic species (Ampelisca abdita and Streblospio benedicti) that brood their young and live on the surface of the sediment in tubes have shown a continual decline in dominance coincident with the decline in metals; both species had short-lived rebounds in abundance in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Heteromastus filiformis (a subsurface polychaete worm that lives in the sediment, consumes sediment and organic particles residing in the sediment, and reproduces by laying its eggs on or in the sediment) showed a concurrent increase in dominance and, in last several years prior to 2008, showed a stable population. An unidentified disturbance occurred on the mudflat in early 2008 that resulted in the loss of the benthic animals, except for those deep-dwelling animals like Macoma petalum. Animals immediately returned to the mudflat in 2008, which was the first indication that the disturbance was not due to a persistent toxin or to anoxia. The use of functional ecology was highlighted in the 2010 benthic community data, which show that the animals that have now returned to the mudflat are those that can respond successfully to a physical, nontoxic disturbance. Today, community data show a mix of animals that consume the sediment, filter feed, have pelagic larvae that must survive landing on the sediment, and brood their young. USGS scientists continue to observe the community’s response to the defaunation event because it allows them to examine the response of the community to a natural disturbance (possible causes include sediment accretion or freshwater inundation) and compare this recovery to the long-term recovery observed in the 1970s when the decline in sediment pollutants was the dominating factor.

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Suggested citation:

Dyke, J.L., Parchaso, F., Thompson, J.K., Cain, D.J., Luoma, S.N., and Hornberger, M.I., 2011, Near-field receiving water monitoring of trace metals and a benthic community near the Palo Alto Regional Water Quality Control Plant in South San Francisco Bay, California—2010: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1163, 114 p.


Executive Summary of Past Findings




Results and Discussion


References Cited

eleven appendixes

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