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Dissolved oxygen decline in ice-covered rivers of northern Alberta and its effects on aquatic biota

Abstract

To determine whether existing dissolved oxygen (DO) regulationswere adequate to protect riverine biota, the Northern River Basins Studyrequired a research and assessment program to establish the effect ofpulp mill and municipal sewage discharges on under-ice DO concentrationsand aquatic biota in the Athabasca, Wapiti and Smoky rivers of northernAlberta, Canada. Analysis of monitoring data collected over >30 yearsshowed that pulp mill and municipal effluents have caused “sags” in DObelow their discharges and contributed to an increased rate of declinein DO over 10s of kilometers in the Wapiti-Smoky rivers or 100s ofkilometers in the Athabasca River. To permit forecasting of DO declinesin response to changes in river discharge or effluent biochemical oxygendemand (BOD), a one-dimensional steady-state river water quality modelwas implemented that successfully (r2 =0.74–0.92) predicted DO concentrations over an 820 km reach of theAthabasca River for the 1990–1994 winters. Experiments on nativefish and benthic macroinvertebrate species showed that exposure to lowDO and low temperatures (2–3°C) caused delays in hatch ofmountain whitefish eggs (at 6.5 mg/L DO), reduced mass of bull troutalevins post-hatch (at 5.0 mg/L DO), extended the spawning period ofburbot (at 6.0 mg/L DO), and depressed feeding rates and loweredsurvival of the mayfly Baetis tricaudatus (at 5 mg/L DO).As a result of recommendations from this integrated program of rivermonitoring, modelling and experimentation, effluent BOD loading has beenreduced to the Athabasca and Wapiti rivers and the provincial DOguideline for protection of aquatic life has been increased from 5.0 to6.5 mg/L.

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Correspondence to Patricia A. Chambers.

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Chambers, P.A., Brown, S., Culp, J.M. et al. Dissolved oxygen decline in ice-covered rivers of northern Alberta and its effects on aquatic biota. Journal of Aquatic Ecosystem Stress and Recovery 8, 27–38 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011491706666

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011491706666

  • Canada
  • dissolved oxygen
  • fish
  • ice cover
  • macroinvertebrates
  • pulp mill effluent
  • rivers
  • sewage