, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 422-435

Effects of stormwater nutrient discharges on eutrophication processes in nearshore waters of the Florida keys

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Abstract

Rainfall events cause episodic discharges of groundwaters contaminated with septic tank effluent into nearshore waters of the Florida keys, enhancing eutrophication in sensitive coral reef communities. Our study characterized the effects of stormwater discharges by continuously (30-min intervals) measuring salinity, temperature, tidal stage, and dissolved oxygen (DO) along an offshore eutrophication gradient prior to and following heavy rainfall at the beginning of the 1992 rainy season. The gradient included stations at a developed canal system (PP) on Big Pine Key, a seagrass meadow in a tidal channel (PC), a nearshore patch reef (PR), a bank reef at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary (LK), and a blue water station (BW) approximately 9 km off of Big PIne Key. Water samples were collected at weekly intervals during this period to determine concentrations of total nitrogen (TN), ammonium (NH4 +), nitrate plus nitrite NO3 plus NO2 ), total phosphorus (TP), total dissolved phosphorus (TDP), soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP), and chlorophyll a (chl a). Decreased salinity immediately followed the first major rainfall at Big Pine Key, which was followed by anoxia (DO <0.1 mg I−1), high concentrations of NH4 + (≈24 μM), TDP (≈1.5 μM), and chl a (≈20 μg I−1). Maximum concentration of TDP (≈0.30 μM) also followed the initial rainfall at the PC, PR, and LK stations. In contrast, NH4 + (≈4.0 μM) and chl a (0.45 μg I−1) lagged the rain event by 1–3 wk, depending on distance from shore. The highest and most variable concentrations of NH4 +, TDP, and chl a occurred at PP, and all nutrient parameters correlated positively with rainfall. DO at all stations was positively correlated with tide and salinity and the lowest values occurred during low tide and low salinity (high rainfall) periods. Hypoxia (DO <2.5 mg I−1) was observed at all stations follwing the stormwater discharges, including the offshore bank reef station LK. Our study demonstrated that high frequency (daily) sampling is necessary to track the effects of episodic rainfall events on water quality and that such effects can be detected at considerable distances (12 km) from shore. The low levels of DO and high levels of nutrients and chl a in coastal waters of the Florida Keys demand that special precautions be exercised in the treatment and discharge of wastewaters and land-based runoff in order to preserve sensitive coral reef communities.