Impacts of industrial atmospheric emissions on watershed export of dissolved ions in coastal streams: a Bayesian modeling approach


Anthropogenic atmospheric emission and subsequent deposition of sulfur (S) has been linked to disrupted watershed biogeochemical processes through soil and surface water acidification. We investigated watershed-scale impacts of acidic deposition on tributary concentrations and watershed exports of major nutrients and ions for the Kitimat River Watershed, British Columbia. Since the 1950s, the Kitimat watershed had an aluminum smelting facility with substantial emissions at the river estuary. Emissions load the airshed overlying the watershed and potentially impact western tributaries leaving eastern tributaries available as reference. We assessed concentrations and export of key compounds in three reference and six potentially impacted tributaries and watersheds in 2015 and 2016. Sulfate (SO4), fluoride (F), nitrate (NO3), and chloride (Cl) were significantly higher in impacted tributaries. F concentrations exceeded the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment guideline for aquatic life in 83% of samples collected from impacted streams. Watershed export and associated uncertainty were determined by bootstrapped flow-stratified Beale’s unbiased estimator. Impact of emissions on watershed export was modeled in a Bayesian approach to include variance in the export estimate to inform the uncertainty of model parameters. Export of SO4 and Ca increased significantly within 16 km and 8 km, respectively, toward the smelter emissions. The corresponding impacted area for SO4 and Ca was approximately 100 km2 and 45 km2, respectively. SO4 export is likely due to direct impacts of S deposition, with excess S being flushed from the watersheds. Ca export patterns likely result from indirect impacts of S deposition on soil chemistry and flushing of Ca. These impacts may contribute to effects within tributaries on benthic stream communities and regionally important juvenile Pacific salmon.

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Data availability

Materials presented in this manuscript are available upon request from the authors.

R code and data used in this manuscript are available at, doi 10.5281/zenodo.3822367.


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Technical support was provided by the Haisla First Nation Fisheries Commission (Michael Jacobs, Brenda Bouzane, Trevor Amos, Rachael Franz, and others; Kitamaat Village, BC) and by Hidden River Environmental Management Ltd. (Mitch Drewes, Olivia Gray, Bobbi Vojtko, and others; Terrace, BC). Access to field and laboratory equipment and facilities and advice was provided by staff at the Cultus Lake Salmon Research Laboratory (Glenn Block, Kelly Malange, Garrett Lidin, Lucas Pon, Steve McDonald, David Patterson, Erland MacIsaac, and others; DFO; Cultus Lake, BC), the Kitimat River Salmon Hatchery (Markus Feldhoff, Vince Sealy, Gord Fossl, Stephen Leask, Shaun Barbosa, and others; DFO; Kitimat, BC), and the BC Ministry of Environment (BC MOE; Patrick Williston; Smithers, BC). Background data were provided by Rio Tinto Alcan and BC MOE contained in the reports by ESSA Technologies (2013, 2014). Two anonymous reviewers provided valuable insights on the manuscript.


Funding was provided by the Haisla Nation Council (Kitamaat Village, BC), Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO; Vancouver, BC), the Mitacs Elevate postdoctoral fellowship program (RPW), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) discovery grant program (SOCM).

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Correspondence to Timothy J. Maguire.

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Maguire, T.J., Weidman, R.P., Mundle, S.O.C. et al. Impacts of industrial atmospheric emissions on watershed export of dissolved ions in coastal streams: a Bayesian modeling approach. Environ Monit Assess 192, 568 (2020).

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  • Watersheds
  • Streams
  • Atmospheric deposition
  • Sulfur
  • Nitrogen
  • Calcium
  • Salmon