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Sediment phosphorus buffering in streams at baseflow: A meta-analysis

March 2021

Publication: Journal of Environmental Quality
Author(s): ZP. Simpson, RW. McDowell, LM. Condron

Phosphorus (P) pollution of surface waters remains a challenge for protecting and improving water quality. Central to the challenge is understanding what regulates P concentrations in streams. This quantitative review synthesizes the literature on a major control of P concentrations in streams at baseflow‚Äîthe sediment P buffer‚Äîto better understand streamwater–sediment P interactions. We conducted a global meta-analysis of sediment equilibrium phosphate concentrations at net zero sorption (EPC0), which is the dissolved reactive P (DRP) concentration toward which sediments buffer solution DRP. Our analysis of 45 studies and >900 paired observations of DRP and EPC0 showed that sediments often have potential to remove or release P to the streamwater (83% of observations), meaning that’equilibrium’ between sediment and streamwater is rare. This potential for P exchange is moderated by sediment and stream characteristics, including sorption affinity, stream pH, exchangeable P concentration, and particle sizes. The potential for sediments to modify streamwater DRP concentrations is often not realized owing to other factors (e.g., hydrologic interactions). Sediment surface chemistry, hyporheic exchange, and biota can also influence the potential exchange of P between sediments and the streamwater. Methodological choices significantly influenced EPC0 determination and thus the estimated potential for P exchange; we therefore discuss how to measure and report EPC0 to best suit research objectives and aid in interstudy comparison. Our results enhance understanding of the sediment P buffer and inform how EPC0 can be effectively applied to improve management of aquatic P pollution and eutrophication.

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