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Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5179

Prepared in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

Monitoring to Assess Progress toward Meeting the Assabet River, Massachusetts, Phosphorus Total Maximum Daily Load—Aquatic Macrophyte Biomass and Sediment-Phosphorus Flux

By Marc J. Zimmerman,1 Yu Qian,2 and Tian Yong Q.3

1U.S. Geological Survey, Massachusetts-Rhode Island Water Science Center, Northborough, Massachusetts.
2University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts.
3Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (23.4 MB)Abstract

In 2004, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Total Phosphorus in the Assabet River, Massachusetts, was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The goal of the TMDL was to decrease the concentrations of the nutrient phosphorus to mitigate some of the instream ecological effects of eutrophication on the river; these effects were, for the most part, direct consequences of the excessive growth of aquatic macrophytes. The primary instrument effecting lower concentrations of phosphorus was to be strict control of phosphorus releases from four major wastewatertreatment plants in Westborough, Marlborough, Hudson, and Maynard, Massachusetts. The improvements to be achieved from implementing this control were lower concentrations of total and dissolved phosphorus in the river, a 50-percent reduction in aquatic-plant biomass, a 30-percent reduction in episodes of dissolved oxygen supersaturation, no low-flow dissolved oxygen concentrations less than 5.0 milligrams per liter, and a 90-percent reduction in sediment releases of phosphorus to the overlying water.

In 2007, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, initiated studies to evaluate conditions in the Assabet River prior to the upgrading of wastewater-treatment plants to remove more phosphorus from their effluents. The studies, completed in 2008, implemented a visual monitoring plan to evaluate the extent and biomass of the floating macrophyte Lemna minor (commonly known as lesser duckweed) in five impoundments and evaluated the potential for phosphorus flux from sediments in impounded and free-flowing reaches of the river.

Hydrologically, the two study years 2007 and 2008 were quite different. In 2007, summer streamflows, although low, were higher than average, and in 2008, the flows were generally higher than in 2007. Visually, the effects of these streamflow differences on the distribution of Lemna were obvious. In 2007, large amounts of floating macrophytes accumulated behind bridge constrictions and dams; in 2008, high flows during the early part of the growing season carried floating macrophytes past bridges and over dams, minimizing accumulations. Samples of Lemna were collected and weighed to provide an estimate of Lemna biomass based on areal coverage during the summer growing seasons at eight sites in the five impoundments. Average estimated biomass during 2007 was approximately twice the 2008 biomass in each of the areas monitored. In 2007, in situ hyperspectral and high-resolution, multispectral data from the IKONOS satellite were obtained to evaluate the feasibility of using remote sensing to monitor the extent of aquatic plant growth in Assabet River impoundments. Three vegetation indices based on light reflectance were used to develop metrics with which the hyperspectral and satellite data were compared. The results of the comparisons confirmed that the high-resolution satellite imagery could differentiate among the common aquatic-plant associations found in the impoundments. The use of satellite imagery could counterbalance emphasis on the subjective judgment of a human observer, and airborne hyperspectral data can provide higher resolution imagery than multispectral satellite data.

In 2007 and 2008, the potential for sediment flux of phosphorus was examined in free-flowing reaches of the river and in the two largest impoundments—Hudson and Ben Smith. These studies were undertaken to determine in situ flux rates prior to the implementation of the Assabet River Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorus and to compare these rates with those used in the development and evaluation of the TMDL. Water samples collected from a chamber placed on the river bottom were analyzed for total phosphorus and orthophosphorus. Ambient dissolved oxygen concentrations and seasonal temperature differences appeared to affect the rates of sequestration and sediment release of phosphorus. When dissolved oxygen concentrations remained relatively high in the chambers and when the temperature was relatively low, the tendency was for phosphorus concentrations to decrease in the chambers, indicating sediment sequestration of phosphorus; when dissolved oxygen concentrations dropped to near zero and temperatures were warmest, phosphorus concentrations increased in the chambers, indicating phosphorus flux from the sediment. The rates of release and sequestration in the in situ studies were generally comparable with the rates determined in laboratory studies of Assabet River sediment cores for State and Federal agencies. Sediment-core and chamber studies produced substantial sediment fluxes to the water column only under extremely low-DO or anaerobic conditions rarely found in the Assabet River impoundments; thus, sediment is not likely to be a major phosphorus source, especially when compared to the wastewater effluent, which sustains higher ambient concentrations. The regulatory agencies now (2011) have substantial laboratory and field data with which to determine the required 90-percent reduction in phosphorus flux after the completion of upgrades to the wastewater-treatment plants that discharge to the Assabet River.

Revised April 12, 2012

First posted December 6, 2011

For additional information contact:
U.S. Geological Survey
Massachusetts-Rhode Island Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
10 Bearfoot Road, Northborough, MA 01532
(508) 490–5000

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Suggested citation:

Zimmerman, M.J., Yu Qian, and Tian Yong Q., 2011, Monitoring to assess progress toward meeting the Assabet River, Massachusetts, phosphorus total maximum daily load—Aquatic macrophyte biomass and sediment-phosphorus flux: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5179, 77 p. (Also available at




Purpose and Scope

Previous Investigations in the Assabet River Basin

Part 1: Floating Macrophytes

Visual Observations of the Distribution of Lemna

Multispectral and Hyperspectral Analysis of Lemna Distribution

Methods Used to Obtain and Compare Hyperspectral and Multispectral Data

Application of Remote-Sensing Results to Other Assabet River Impoundments

Estimates of Lemna Biomass Based on Visual Observations

Limitations of Different Methods for Assessing Aquatic-Plant Distribution and Biomass

Part 2: Phosphorus Fluxes From Assabet River Sediments

Previous Assabet River Sediment-Flux Studies

Flux-Chamber Design and Testing

Chamber Design

Sampling Methods

Chamber Testing

Proof-of-Method Laboratory Test

Field Tests

Field Test 1

Field Test 2

Field Test 3

Results of Sampling in Free-Flowing and Impounded Reaches

Total Phosphorus and Orthophosphorus Concentrations in Free-Flowing Reaches

Total Phosphorus and Orthophosphorus Flux Rates from Sediment in Free-Flowing Reaches

Total Phosphorus and Orthophosphorus Concentrations in Impounded Reaches

Total Phosphorus and Orthophosphorus Flux Rates from Sediment in Impounded Reaches

Comparison of Sediment-Phosphorus Flux Rates between Free-Flowing and Impounded Reaches

Comparison of Results of USGS Studies with Results of ENSR International and CDM Laboratory Studies

Summary and Conclusions

Aquatic Macrophytes

Sediment-Phosphorus Flux

References Cited

Figures 3–9

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