Natural and Anthropogenic Water Treatment: How Riverine Ecosystem Services of Nitrogen Removal Interact with Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure in the Northeast U.S.

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Robert James Stewart, University of New Hampshire Main Campus, Durham, NH, United States, Wilfred M Wollheim, Univ New Hampshire, Durham, NH, United States, Kyle A Whittinghill, Saint Olaf College, Biology and Environmental Studies, Northfield, MN, United States, Madeleine Mineau, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, United States and Bernice Rosenzweig, CUNY Environmental Crossroads, New York, NY, United States
The magnitude and spatial distribution of point and non-point dissolved inorganic nitrogen (N) inputs to river systems greatly influences the potential for eutrophication of downstream water bodies. Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), the predominant point source of N in the northeast US, remove some but not all of human waste N they receive. Excess enters rivers, which may further mitigate N concentrations by dilution and denitrification. WWTP effluent combines with upstream flows, which may include non-point sources of N due to agriculture or urbanization. Natural N removal capacities in rivers may however be overwhelmed and become N saturated, which reduces their effectiveness. As a result, natural and man-made services of N removal are intimately linked at the river network scale for provisions of suitable water quality and aquatic habitat. We assessed the summer N mitigation capacity of rivers relative to N removal in WWTPs in the northeastern U.S. using a N removal model developed within the Framework for Aquatic Modeling in the Earth System (FrAMES). The spatially distributed river network model predicts average daily dissolved inorganic nitrogen concentrations at a 3-minute river grid resolution, accounting for the mixing of natural areas, nonpoint sources, WWTP effluent, and instream denitrification, which is simulated as a function of river temperature, water residence time, and biogeochemical activity. Model validation was done using N concentration data from 750 USGS gauges across the northeast during the period 2000-2010. Confidence intervals (90%) are estimated for river N concentrations based on key uncertainties in simulated river width, uptake rates, and N loading rates. Model results suggest WWTPs potentially impact 25,770 km of river length (10.7% of total river length in the northeast) and increase N concentrations an average of 42.3% at the facility locations. The in-stream ecosystem service of N removal accounts for 2.7% of the total cumulative N removed by WWTPs during the summer in the region. Despite providing a relatively small proportion of N removal, the expected deterioration of WWTP infrastructure and associated costs of upgrading existing systems puts the role of this riverine ecosystem service into economic perspective.