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U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2012–1165

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: 2011

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

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (4.1 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 by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists for the period January 2011 to December 2011. These data serve as the basis for the City of Palo Alto’s Near-Field Receiving Water Monitoring Program, initiated in 1994.

Following significant reductions in the late 1980s, silver (Ag) and copper (Cu) concentrations in sediment and M. petalum appear to have stabilized. Data for other metals, including chromium, mercury, nickel, selenium, and zinc, have been collected since 1994. Over this period, concentrations of these elements have remained relatively constant, aside from seasonal variation that is common to all elements. In 2011, concentrations of Ag and Cu in M. petalum varied seasonally in response to a combination of site-specific metal exposures and annual growth and reproduction, as reported previously. Seasonal patterns for other elements, including Cr, Hg, Ni, Se, and Zn, were generally similar in timing and magnitude as those for Ag and Cu. In 2011, metal concentrations in both sediments and clam tissue were among the lowest concentrations on record. This record suggests that regional-scale factors now largely control sedimentary and bioavailable concentrations of Ag and Cu, as well as other elements of regulatory interest, at the Palo Alto site.

Analyses of the benthic community structure of a mudflat in South San Francisco Bay over a 38-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 (2011), with almost all animals initiating reproduction in the fall and spawning the following spring. 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 the last several years before 2008, showed a stable population. H. filiformis abundance increased slightly in 2011. 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 reproductive mode of most species present in 2011 is reflective of the species that were available either as pelagic larvae or as mobile adults. Although egg layers were lower in number in this group, the authors hypothesize that these species will return slowly as more species move back into the area. The use of functional ecology was highlighted in the 2011 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 2008 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., Thompson, J.K., Cain, D.J., Kleckner, A.E., Parchaso, F., Luoma, S.N., and Hornberger, M.I., 2012, 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; 2011: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2012–1165, 108 p. (Available at


Executive Summary of Past Findings






Selected References

Appendixes 1–11

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