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Nutrient couplings between on-site sewage disposal systems, groundwaters, and nearshore surface waters of the Florida Keys

Abstract

We performed a one-year study to determine the effects of on-site sewage disposal systems (OSDS, septic tanks) on the nutrient relations of limestone groundwaters and nearshore surface waters of the Florida Keys. Monitor wells were installed on canal residences with OSDS and a control site in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key. Groundwater and surface water samples were collected monthly during 1987 and analyzed for concentrations of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN = NOf3/sup- + NOf2/sup- + NH4/su+), soluble reactive phosphate (SRP), temperature and salinity.

Significant nutrient enrichment (up to 5000-fold) occurred in groundwaters contiguous to OSDS; DIN was enriched an average of 400-fold and SRP some 70-fold compared to control groundwaters. Ammonium was the dominant nitrogenous species and its concentration ranged from a low of 0.77 μM in control wells to 2.75 mM in OSDS-enriched groundwaters. Concentrations of nitrate plus nitrite were also highly enriched and ranged from 0.05 μM in control wells to 2.89 mM in enriched groundwaters. Relative to DIN, concentrations of SRP were low and ranged from 30 nM in control wells to 107 μM in enriched groundwaters. N : P ratios of enriched groundwaters were consistently > 100 and increased with increasing distance from the OSDS, suggesting significant, but incomplete, adsorption of SRP by subsurface flow through carbonate substrata.

Nutrient concentrations of groundwaters also varied seasonally and were approximately two-fold higher during the winter (DIN = 1035 μM; SRP = 10.3 μM) compared to summer (DIN = 470 μM; SRP = 4.0 μM). In contrast, surface water nutrient concentrations were two-fold higher during the summer (DIN = 5.0 μM; SRP = 0.50 μM) compared to winter (DIN = 2.5 μM; SRP = 0.15 μM).

Direct measurement of subsurface groundwater flow rate indicated that tides and increased groundwater recharge enhanced flow some two-fold and six-fold, respectively. Accordingly, the observed seasonal coupling of OSDS-derived nutrients from groundwaters to surface waters is maximum during summer because of seasonally maximum tides and increased hydraulic head during the summer wet season. The yearly average benthic flux of anthropogenic DIN into contiguous canal surface waters is 55 mmol m-2 day-1, a value some five-fold greater than the highest rate of benthic N-fixation measured in carbonate-rich tropical marine waters.

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Lapointe, B.E., O'Connell, J.D. & Garrett, G.S. Nutrient couplings between on-site sewage disposal systems, groundwaters, and nearshore surface waters of the Florida Keys. Biogeochemistry 10, 289–307 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00003149

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Key words

  • Groundwater
  • surface water
  • ammonium
  • nitrate
  • soluble reactive phosphate
  • carbonate