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Water Res. 2002 Feb;36(3):685-701.

The phosphorus content of fluvial sediment in rural and industrialized river basins.

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  • 1Department of Geography, School of Geography & Archaeology, University of Exeter, Devon, UK.


The phosphorus content of fluvial sediment (suspended sediment and the < 63 microm fraction of floodplain and channel bed sediment) has been examined in contrasting rural (moorland and agricultural) and industrialized catchments in Yorkshire, UK. The River Swale drains a rural catchment with no major urban and industrial areas, and the total phosphorus (TP) content of fluvial sediment is generally within the range 500-1,500 microg g(-1). There is little evidence of any major downstream increase in TP content. In contrast, fluvial sediment from the industrialized catchments of the Rivers Aire and Calder exhibits both higher levels of TP content and marked downstream increases, with values of TP content ranging from < 2,000 microg g(-1) in headwater areas upstream of the main urban and industrial areas, to values > 7,000 microg g(-1) at downstream sites. These elevated levels reflect P inputs from point sources, such as sewage treatment works (STWs) and combined sewer overflows. The influence of STWs is further demonstrated by the downstream increase in the inorganic P/organic P ratio from < 2 in the headwaters to > 4 in the lower reaches. Comparison of the P content of suspended sediment with that of the <63 microm fraction of potential source materials suggests that topsoil from upland moorland/pasture and from cultivated areas, and channel bank material are likely to be the main sources of particulate P (PP) in the River Swale and in the headwaters of the Rivers Aire and Calder. In the middle and lower reaches of the Rivers Aire and Calder, inputs associated with urban and industrial land uses, such as STWs, industrial effluents and street dust, are likely to represent the dominant sources of PP. During high flow events, such urban inputs may be diluted by inputs from moorland and agricultural land in the headwaters. Consequently, for all three rivers, there are inverse relationships between the TP content of suspended sediment and both discharge and suspended sediment concentration, reflecting changes in sediment and P sources during high flow events. Spatial variations in the P contents of the < 63 microm fraction of overbank floodplain deposits and channel bed sediment evidence a similar pattern as those for suspended sediment, with relatively low levels of TP in the River Swale and elevated levels in the middle and downstream reaches of the Rivers Aire and Calder. The PP concentrations associated with floodplain and channel bed sediment are, however, lower than equivalent values for suspended sediment, and this primarily reflects the differences in the particle size composition between the three types of sediments. Rates of floodplain deposition and the amounts of fine-grained sediment stored in the river channels are relatively high, and suggest that such environments may represent important sinks for PP. Based on the sediment samples collected from the study basins, a simple four-fold classification which relates the TP content of suspended sediment to upstream land use has been established. Both the range and the absolute values of TP content tend to increase with an increase in the level of urbanization and industrialization.

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