, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 165-175

The limits of phosphorus removal in wetlands

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Abstract

The phosphorus concentrations exported from wetlands are explored via data and a first order model. The graph of outlet concentration versus areal phosphorus loading is used to display these data and the model. For a given wetland, data and models show that P concentrations show an ‘S’ curve response to increasing P loadings. The lower plateau is the background concentration and the upper plateau is the inlet concentration. The position of the ascending limb between the two plateaus is positioned differently for different wetlands. Phosphorus (P) removal in wetlands is often typified by a stable decreasing gradient of P concentrations from inlet to outlet, and an accompanying stable decreasing gradient in P assimilation. Limits to removal are inherent in the physical, chemical and biological processes. A lower outlet concentration limit exists because of the P cycle in the un-impacted wetland. The loading at which the outlet concentration departs from background, the lower knee in the loading curve, varies from wetland to wetland. An upper outlet concentration limit is imposed by the source concentration for extremely high inflows. The first order mass balance equation interpolates between these limits. The model gives further insights about performance within an overall envelope. The water carrying capacity of the wetland precludes flows in excess of the hydraulic conveyance capacity, thus limiting the possible P loadings to the system. Conversely, extremely low hydraulic loadings cause the wetland to be dominated by atmospheric additions and losses. The central tendency of inter-system data in the North American Database is shown to be inadequate to draw generalized conclusions about ecosystem processes in an individual wetland. The proposed ‘one gram rule’ of Richardson, et al. (1997) is shown to be an over-simplification.