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Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5154

Prepared in cooperation with Clean Water Services

Use of Stable Isotopes of Carbon and Nitrogen to Identify Sources of Organic Matter to Bed Sediments of the Tualatin River, Oregon

By Bernadine A. Bonn and Stewart A. Rounds

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The potential sources of organic matter to bed sediment of the Tualatin River in northwestern Oregon were investigated by comparing the isotopic fractionation of carbon and nitrogen and the carbon/nitrogen ratios of potential sources and bed sediments. Samples of bed sediment, suspended sediment, and seston, as well as potential source materials, such as soil, plant litter, duckweed, and wastewater treatment facility effluent particulate were collected in 1998–2000.

Based on the isotopic data, terrestrial plants and soils were determined to be the most likely sources of organic material to Tualatin River bed sediments. The δ13C fractionation matched well, and although the δ15N and carbon/nitrogen ratio of fresh plant litter did not match those of bed sediments, the changes expected with decomposition would result in a good match. The fact that the isotopic composition of decomposed terrestrial plant material closely resembled that of soils and bed sediments supports this conclusion.

Phytoplankton probably was not a major source of organic matter to bed sediments. Compared to the values for bed sediments, the δ13C values and carbon/nitrogen ratios of phytoplankton were too low and the δ15N values were too high. Decomposition would only exacerbate these differences. Although phytoplankton cannot be considered a major source of organic material to bed sediment, a few bed sediment samples in the lower reach of the river showed a small influence from phytoplankton as evidenced by lower δ13C values than in other bed sediment samples.

Isotopic data and carbon/nitrogen ratios for bed sediments generally were similar throughout the basin, supporting the idea of a widespread source such as terrestrial material. The δ15N was slightly lower in tributaries and in the upper reaches of the river. Higher rates of sediment oxygen demand have been measured in the tributaries in previous studies and coupled with the isotopic data may indicate the presence of more labile organic matter in these areas. Results from this study indicate that strategies to improve oxygen conditions in the Tualatin River are likely to be more successful if they target sources of soil, leaf litter, and other terrestrially derived organic materials to the river rather than the instream growth of algae.

First posted August 17, 2010

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Director, Oregon Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
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Portland, Oregon 97201

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Suggested citation:

Bonn, B.A., and Rounds, S.A., 2010, Use of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen to identify sources of organic matter to bed sediments of the Tualatin River, Oregon: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5154, 58 p.

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