Assessing Spatial Variability of Nutrients, Phytoplankton, and Related Water-Quality Constituents in the California Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta at the Landscape Scale: 2018 High Resolution Mapping Surveys

Scientific Investigations Report 2023-5060
Prepared in cooperation with the Delta Regional Monitoring Program
By: , and 


Executive Summary

This study examined the abundance and distribution of nutrients and phytoplankton in the tidal aquatic environments of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta (Delta) and Suisun Bay, comprising three spatial surveys conducted in May, July, and October of 2018 that used continuous underway high frequency sampling and measurements onboard a high-speed boat to characterize spatial variation across the extent of the Delta. The method used involves simultaneously collecting information about the concentration and spatial distribution of all major nutrient forms with analogous information about the major classes of phytoplankton and associated water-quality conditions. The results showed substantial variation across space and time, providing an unprecedented snapshot of the dynamic environmental processes that shape the ways nutrients interact with and affect aquatic habitats in the Delta.

The purposes of this study were to improve our understanding of how hydrodynamics, landscape features, and aquatic primary productivity interact to drive nutrient cycling and transport in the Delta and to provide insights into the underlying processes most directly responsible for the conditions at the time of this study, and thus into the range of conditions that may be expected following the wide array of prospective future changes to the Delta. One major anticipated change at the time of this study was the planned upgrade to the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, but the study also informs our understanding of potential effects from other changes to the Delta, such as those caused by other nutrient-management actions, flow actions, large-scale wetland restoration, drought, flood, levee failure, and changes to water management.

Nutrient loading is the primary driver of nutrient concentrations in the Delta, but several other major drivers interact to shape their distribution and effects: geomorphology, hydrodynamics, landscape features, and aquatic productivity. Hydrodynamics affect timescales of transport and dilution of nutrient loads in the Delta. During transit through the system, channel geometry, tidal mixing, and water exports affect hydrodynamics in diverse ways that influence water-residence and transport times, thereby markedly affecting the range of times during which natural internal cycling can alter nutrient concentrations and forms. Channel geometry and location shape tidal energy and river currents into these observed dynamics. Interactions with Delta aquatic landscapes such as herbaceous tidal marsh, submerged aquatic vegetation, and large expanses of intertidal or subtidal sediments (all highly productive landscapes) exert demand on available nutrient supplies but can also simultaneously transform and generate nutrients. Finally, while phytoplankton require nutrients to sustain production and thus are a potential nutrient sink, the amount and form of nutrients also can influence the occurrence of harmful algal blooms (HABs) that adversely affect aquatic organisms as well as affect the occurrence of beneficial algal blooms that result in production of algae that are favorable for imperiled Delta pelagic aquatic food webs.

The surveys revealed a complex mosaic of spatial variation, with nutrient concentrations varying from near zero to well above concentrations considered eutrophic; nutrient concentrations were more often related to the extent of hydrologic transport and mixing than to specific geographic locations or to specific landscape features. Similarly, the surveys identified phytoplankton abundance ranging from near detection to the level of large phytoplankton blooms, with large variation in phytoplankton community composition. Although the study occurred during a period of low bloom activity, phytoplankton productivity appeared to be the strongest potential sink for inorganic nutrients in the Delta, indicating that it is a larger control on nutrient concentrations and distribution than previously understood. Cycling and transformation within the water column only appeared to substantially lower total nutrient concentrations at the longest estimated transport timescales. Contrary to expectations, we did not observe substantial nutrient depletion near landscape-scale features such as open-water habitats, submerged aquatic vegetation beds, extensive wetlands, or exposed sediments, indicating that these habitat types did not act as major sinks for nutrients in the Delta during these surveys. These results indicated that nutrient reduction efforts may have the greatest effect on pelagic phytoplankton productivity in the more productive reaches of the Delta and estuary, but these effects are unlikely to be magnified by changes to nutrient loss within the Delta over conceivable changes in flow conditions, Delta water management actions, or large-scale wetland restoration activities. Nevertheless, local processes were shown to cause substantial loss, and thus integrating of nutrient effects with other indicators of aquatic habitat conditions will help inform planning future actions at specific sites.

Finally, we note that the primary contribution of this study was intended to be the survey data themselves. Aside from the results highlighted in this report, the surveys are a benchmark against which future environmental change may be evaluated, including changes to nutrient management or water exports, drought, large-scale wetland restoration, and climate change. Further, although we highlight some of the main findings from the surveys in this report, the necessarily limited scope precludes examination of many topics for which these surveys may be highly informative. To facilitate the utility of these data to stakeholders, managers, and researchers, we have released the data online (Bergamaschi and others, 2020) and created an online data exploration portal (https:​//ca.water​​bay-​delta/​2018-​delta-​wide-​mapping-​surveys.html) where users may query the surveys in a variety of ways to test hypotheses, examine relationships, assess spatial trends, and download data. The data exploration portal is intended to be an immersive experience that allows users to gain greater understanding of the complex interactions that shape Delta aquatic environments. This report is intended as a companion to the portal, allowing the reader to challenge and further explore the highlighted findings.

This study was a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey and the Delta Regional Monitoring Program, with additional funding provided from U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Matching Funds Program.

Suggested Citation

Bergamaschi, B.A., Kraus, T.E.C., Downing, B.D., Stumpner, E.B., O’Donnell, K., Hansen, J.A., Soto Perez, J., Richardson, E.T., Hansen, A.M., and Gelber, A., 2024, Assessing spatial variability of nutrients, phytoplankton, and related water-quality constituents in the California Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta at the landscape scale—2018 high resolution mapping surveys: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2023–5060, 47 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results and Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Data-Quality Objectives
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Assessing spatial variability of nutrients, phytoplankton, and related water-quality constituents in the California Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta at the landscape scale—2018 high resolution mapping surveys
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2023-5060
DOI 10.3133/sir20235060
Year Published 2024
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center
Description Report: viii, 47 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details