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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2001 Feb;76(1):27-64.

Sources and bioavailability of phosphorus fractions in freshwaters: a British perspective.

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CEH Windermere Laboratory, Cumbria, UK.


This paper seeks a perspective on the forms of phosphorus which promote aquatic eutrophication, with the particular quest of establishing their sources. A short background traces the development of understanding of nutrient enrichment and the suppositions about the relative contributions of agriculture, sewage and detergent residues. Most aquatic systems, and their primary producers, are naturally deficient in biologically-available phosphorus. Aquatic plants have evolved very efficient phosphorus uptake mechanisms. The biomass responses to an increase in the supply of phosphorus are stoichiometrically predictable. The most bioavailable forms of phosphorus are in solution, as orthophosphate ions, or are readily soluble or elutable from loose combinations. Ready bioavailability coincides well with what is measurable as molybdate-reactive (MRP) or soluble-reactive phosphorus (SRP). Most other forms, including phosphates of the alkaline earth metals, aluminium and iron are scarcely available at all. Orthophosphate ions sorbed to metal oxides and hydroxides are normally not biologically available either, except through weak dissociation ('desorption'). The production of alkaline phosphatase provides organisms with an additional mechanism for accelerating the sequestration of phosphate from organic compounds. Bioavailable phosphate is liberated when redox- or alkali-sensitive metal hydroxides dissolve but these processes are minor contributors to the biological responses to nutrient enrichment. Most of the familiar eutrophication is attributable to the widespread application of secondary sewage treatment methods to the wastes emanating from a burgeoning and increasingly urbanised human population. The use of polyphosphate-based detergents, now in decline, has contributed to the problem. In aquatic systems, the additional phosphorus raises the biological supportive capacity, sometimes to the capacity of the next limiting factor (carbon, light, hydraulic retention or of another nutrient). At high orthophosphate loadings, the straight stoichiometric yield relationship between biomass yield and phosphorus a vailability is lost. Movements of phosphorus and its recycling within aquatic systems do not prevent the slow gravitation of phosphorus to the bottom substrata. The phosphorus retentivity of sediments depends upon their chemical composition. While oxide-hydroxide binding capacity in the surface sediments persists, they act as a sink for phosphorus and a control on further cycling. Iron-rich and clay-rich sediments perform best in these conditions; calcareous sediments least so. Eutrophication may lead to the exhaustion of sediment P-binding capacity. Non-sorbed phosphate is readily recyclable if primary producers have access to it. Recycling is most rapid in shallow waters (where sediment disturbance, by flow, by wind action and through bioturbation, is frequent and least in deep ventilated sediments. The contributions of phosphorus from catchments are assessed. The slow rate of weathering of (mostly apatitic) minerals, the role of chemical binding in soils and the incorporation and retentivity bv forested terrestrial ecosystems each contribute to the minimisation of phosphorus leakage to drainage waters. Palaeolimnological and experimental evidence confirms that clearance of land and ploughing its surface weakens the phosphorus retentivity of catchments. The phosphorus transferred from arable land to drainage remains dominated by sorbed fractions which are scarcely bioavailable. Some forms of intensive market gardening or concentrated stock rearing may mobilise phosphates to drainage but it is deduced that drainage from agricultural land is not commonly a major source of readily bioavailable phosphorus in water. Careful budgeting of the phosphates in run-off from over-fertilised soils may nevertheless show that a proportionately small loss of bioavailable phosphorus can still be highly significant in promoting aquatic plant production. The bioavailable-phosphorus (BAP) load achieving the OECD threshold of lake eutrophy (35 mg P m(-3)) is calculated to be equivalent to a terrestrial loss rate of approximately 17.5 kg BAP km(-2) year(-1)), or only 1-2% of a typical fertiliser application. The output is shown to be comparable with the P yield from secondary treatment of the sewage produced by a resident population of 30-44 persons km(-2). With tertiary treatment, the equivalence is with approximately 200 persons km(-2).

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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