Environmental Monitoring and Assessment

, Volume 147, Issue 1–3, pp 351–375 | Cite as

Spatial and seasonal patterns in water quality in an embayment-mainstem reach of the tidal freshwater Potomac River, USA: a multiyear study

  • R. Christian Jones
  • Donald P. Kelso
  • Elaine Schaeffer


Spatial and temporal patterns in water quality were studied for seven years within an embayment-river mainstem area of the tidal freshwater Potomac River. The purpose of this paper is to determine the important components of spatial and temporal variation in water quality in this study area to facilitate an understanding of management impacts and allow the most effective use of future monitoring resources. The study area received treated sewage effluent and freshwater inflow from direct tributary inputs into the shallow embayment as well as upriver sources in the mainstem. Depth variations were determined to be detectable, but minimal due mainly to the influence of tidal mixing. Results of principal component analysis of two independent water quality datasets revealed clear spatial and seasonal patterns. Interannual variation was generally minimal despite substantial variations in tributary and mainstem discharge among years. Since both spatial and seasonal components were important, data were segmented by season to best determine the spatial pattern. A clear difference was found between a set of stations located within one embayment (Gunston Cove) and a second set in the nearby Potomac mainstem. Parameters most highly correlated with differences were those typically associated with higher densities of phytoplankton: chlorophyll a, photosynthetic rate, pH, dissolved oxygen, BOD, total phosphorus and Secchi depth. These differences and their consistency indicated two distinct water masses: one in the cove harboring higher algal density and activity and a second in the river with lower phytoplankton activity. A second embayment not receiving sewage effluent generally had an intermediate position. While this was the most consistent spatial pattern, there were two others of a secondary nature. Stations closer to the effluent inputs in the embayment sometimes grouped separately due to elevated ammonia and chloride. Stations closer to tributary inflows into the embayment sometimes grouped separately due to dilution with freshwater runoff. Segmenting the datasets by spatial region resulted in a clarification of seasonal patterns with similar factors relating to algal activity being the major correlates of the seasonal pattern. A basic seasonal pattern of lower scores in the spring increasing steadily to a peak in July and August followed by a steady decline through the fall was observed in the cove. In the river, the pattern of increases tended to be delayed slightly in the spring. Results indicate that the study area can be effectively monitored with fewer study sites provided that at least one is located in each of the spatial regions.


BOD Chlorophyll a Interannual Nitrogen Phosphorus Multivariate Seasonal Secchi depth Spatial Water quality 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. APHA (1971). Standard methods for the examination of water and wastewater, 13th edition. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association, American Water Works Association, and Water Pollution Control Federation.Google Scholar
  2. APHA (1980). Standard methods for the examination of water and wastewater, 15th edition. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association, American Water Works Association, and Water Pollution Control Federation.Google Scholar
  3. ASTM. (2007). Standard practices for measurement of chlorophyll content of algae in surface waters. D3731-87. ASTM International. Retrieved March 23, 2007 from
  4. Boyer, J. N., Fourqurean, J. W., & Jones, R. D. (1997). Spatial characterization of water quality in Florida Bay and Whitewater Bay by multivariate analyses: zones of similar influence. Estuaries, 20, 743–758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Caccia, V. G., & Boyer, J. N. (2005). Spatial patterning of water quality in Biscayne Bay, Florida as a function of land use and water management. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 50, 1416–1429.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cerco, C. F. (1988). Sediment nutrient fluxes in a tidal freshwater embayment. Water Resources Bulletin, 24, 255–260.Google Scholar
  7. DeStasio Jr., B. T., & Richman, S. (1998). Phytoplankton spatial and temporal distributions in Green Bay, Lake Michigan, prior to colonization by the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha). Journal of Great Lakes Research, 24, 620–628.Google Scholar
  8. Dokulil, M. T., & Teubner, K. (2002). Assessment of ecological integrity from environmental variables in an impacted oligotrophic, alpine lake: whole lake approach using 3D-spatial heterogeneity. Water, Soil, and Air Pollution: Focus, 2, 165–2002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Durfor, C. N. (1961). Water quality and hydrology in the Fort Belvoir area, Virginia, 1954–55. US Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 1586-A. Washington, DC, USA.Google Scholar
  10. Effler, S. W., Brooks, C. M., Perkins, M. G., Ohrazda, N. K., Matthews, D. A., Johnson, D. L., et al. (2000). The effect of terrigenouos inputs on spatial patterns of water quality indicators in South Lake, Lake Champlain. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 26, 366–383.Google Scholar
  11. Fairfax County (1975–2004). Standard reports (demographic reports). Fairfax County, Virginia: USA Fairfax County Office of Management and Budget.Google Scholar
  12. Findlay, S., Pace, M., & Lints, D. (1991). Variability and transport of suspended sediment, particulate and dissolved organic carbon in the tidal freshwater Hudson river. Biogeochemistry, 12, 149–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hach. (2007). Nitrate cadmium reduction method. Method 8192. Hach Water Analysis Handbook. Retrieved March 23, 2007 from
  14. Harper, J. D. (1988). Effects of summer storms on the phytoplankton of a tidal Potomac River embayment. Dissertation. George Mason University: Fairfax, VA, USA.Google Scholar
  15. Jones, R. C. (1988). Use of in situ nutrient addition and dilution bioassays to detect nutrient limitation in the tidal freshwater Potomac. In Understanding the Estuary: Advances in Chesapeake Bay Research (pp 241–252). Chesapeake Research Consortium Publication 129.Google Scholar
  16. Jones, R. C. (1991). Spatial and temporal patterns in a cyanobacterial phytoplankton bloom in the tidal freshwater Potomac River, USA. Verhandlungen International Vereinigung Limnologie, 24, 1698–1702.Google Scholar
  17. Jones, R. C. (1998). Seasonal and spatial patterns in phytoplankton photosynthetic parameters in a tidal freshwater river. Hydrobiologia, 364, 199–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Jones, R. C. (2000). Long-term trends in summer phytoplankton chlorophyll a in the tidal freshwater Potomac River, USA: relationship to climatic and management factors. Verhandlungen International Vereinigung Limnologie, 27, 2959–2962.Google Scholar
  19. Jones, R. C., Buchanan, C., & Andrle, V. (1992). Spatial, seasonal, and interannual patterns in the phytoplankton communities of a tidal freshwater ecosystem. Virginia Journal of Science, 43, 25–40.Google Scholar
  20. Kircher, S. R. (1990). The effect of pH on the release of phosphorus from the sediments of Gunston Cove, Virginia. Thesis. George Mason University: Fairfax, Virginia. 49 pp.Google Scholar
  21. Kircher, S. R., & Jones, R. C. (1990). The temporal and spatial distribution of sediment phosphorus and iron in Gunston Cove, Virginia. In New Perspectives in the Chesapeake System. (pp 769–774). Chesapeake Research Consortium Publication 139.Google Scholar
  22. Lampman, G. G., Caraco, N. F., & Cole, J. J. (1999). Spatial and temporal patterns of nutrient concentration and export in the tidal Hudson River. Estuaries, 22, 285–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lathrop Jr., R. G., Vande Castle, J. R., & Lillesand, T. M. (1990). Monitoring river plume transport and mesoscale circulation in Green Bay, Lake Michigan, thorough satellite remote sensing. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 16, 471–484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lebo, M. E., & Sharp, J. H. (1993). Distribution of phosphorus along the Delaware, an urbanized coastal plain estuary. Estuaries, 16, 290–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lind, O. T. (1974). Handbook of Common Methods in Limnology. Saint Louis, Mo: Mosby.Google Scholar
  26. Lippson, A. J., Haire, M. S., Holland, A. F., Jacobs, F., Jensen, J., Moran-Johnson, R. L., et al. (1981). Environmental atlas of the potomac estuary. Environmental Center: Martin Marietta.Google Scholar
  27. Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (1989). Potomac River water quality 1982–1986. Washington, DC: MWCOG Department of Environmental Programs.Google Scholar
  28. Momen, B., Eichler, L. W., Boylen, C. W., & Zehr, J. P. (1996). Application of multivariate statistics in detecting temporal and spatial patterns of water chemistry in Lake George, New York. Ecological Modelling, 91, 183–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Oehrlein, W. L. (1990). Sediment phosphorus available to phytoplankton as a function of pH in Pohick Bay, Virginia. Thesis. George Mason University: Fairfax, Virginia. 43 pp.Google Scholar
  30. Parsons, Brickerhoff, Quade, & Douglas, Inc. (1973). Pohick environmental baseline. Task Order 10.1. Master Plan for Flood Control and Drainage. Fairfax County; Virginia.Google Scholar
  31. Parsons, Brickerhoff, Quade, & Douglas, Inc. (1975). Accotink environmental baseline. Task Order 10.3. Master Plan for Flood Control and Drainage. Fairfax County; Virginia.Google Scholar
  32. Seitzinger, S. P. (1991). The effect of pH on the release of phosphorus from Potomac estuary sediments: implications for blue-green algal blooms. Estuarine, Coastal, and Shelf Science, 33, 409–418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Settacharnwit, S., Buckney, R. T., & Lim, R. P. (2003). The nutrient status of Nong Han, a shallow tropical lake in north-eastern Thailand: spatial and temporal variations. Lakes and Reservoirs: Research and Management, 8, 189–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Shreshtha, S., & Kazama, F. (2007). Assessment of surface water quality using multivariate statistical techniques: a case study of the Fuji river basin, Japan. Environmental Modelling and Software, 22, 464–475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sokal, R. R., & Rohlf, F. J. (1995). Biometry (3rd ed.). New York: Freeman.Google Scholar
  36. US Environmental Protection Agency. (1979). EPA methods for chemical analysis of water and wastewater. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency.Google Scholar
  37. Van Dolah, R. F., Chestnut, D. E., Jones, J. D., Jutte, P. C., Riekerk, G., Levisen, M., et al. (2003). The importance of considering spatial attributes in evaluating estuarine habitat condition: the South Carolina experience. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 81, 85–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Wetzel, R. G., & Likens, G. E. (1991). Limnological Analyses (2nd ed.). New York: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. Christian Jones
    • 1
  • Donald P. Kelso
    • 1
  • Elaine Schaeffer
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Environmental Science and PolicyGeorge Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA
  2. 2.Fairfax County Environmental Services LaboratoryCounty of FairfaxLortonUSA

Personalised recommendations