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Ammonium threshold values for groundwater quality in the EU may not protect groundwater fauna: evidence from an alluvial aquifer in Italy


The European Union (EU) threshold values for \({\text{NH}}_{4}^{ + }\) in groundwater range from a minimum of 0.084 mg l−1 to the maximum allowed of 5 mg l−1. The aim of our study was to determine whether these values are adequate to protect groundwater copepods in alluvial aquifers underlying intensive agriculture. To this end, we analyzed abiotic (including \({\text{NH}}_{4}^{ + }\) concentration) and biological patterns (copepod assemblages) in an alluvial aquifer in an area of intensive agriculture. Groundwater was collected from pre-existing farmer-owned bores. Abiotic and biological patterns were not related to seasonal variation in agricultural practices, and pollutant concentrations were typically below the legal maximum threshold values. However, both abiotic and biological variables differed significantly between two groups of bores, with high and low \({\text{NH}}_{4}^{ + }\) conditions based on separate ecotoxicological assays that set the \({\text{NH}}_{4}^{ + }\) toxicity threshold for stygobiotic copepods at 2.5× below the current EU lowest legal threshold. In particular, phosphorus concentration was higher, and oxygen and copepod abundance and richness were lower in high \({\text{NH}}_{4}^{ + }\) bores. Our results suggest that the present threshold value range for \({\text{NH}}_{4}^{ + }\) adopted by EU Member States may not protect stygobiotic copepod assemblages in alluvial aquifers underlying densely cultivated areas.

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The project was funded by a grant from the Basin Authority of the River Adige (Trento, Italy). We thank Fabio Lazzeri for the design and concept of Fig. 1, and Andrea Marchetti and Enrico Gattone for help in field sampling. Constructive criticism by Dr. Grant C. Hose (Macquarie University, NSW, Australia) and an anonymous reviewer also improved the paper.

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Correspondence to T. Di Lorenzo.

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Di Lorenzo, T., Cifoni, M., Lombardo, P. et al. Ammonium threshold values for groundwater quality in the EU may not protect groundwater fauna: evidence from an alluvial aquifer in Italy. Hydrobiologia 743, 139–150 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10750-014-2018-y

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  • Ammonium
  • Aquifer
  • Stygobiotic
  • Toxicity
  • Groundwater
  • Threshold