Fate of bioavailable nutrients released to a stream during episodic effluent releases from a municipal wastewater treatment lagoon†
Municipal wastewater lagoons are common across North America and, unlike larger mechanical wastewater treatment plants, typically release nutrient-rich effluent directly to rivers in intermittent pulses. However, little is known about the fate of nutrients from these episodic events, which may happen under varying hydrologic or thermal conditions. We assessed fate of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) from lagoon effluent during three releases to Deadhorse Creek, Manitoba, Canada. Using net nutrient uptake lengths and natural abundance stable isotope ratios of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) and primary producers, we found that DIN was processed during the summer releases though the dominant mechanism was unclear. However, nitrate was largely exported in autumn. Primary producers assimilated lagoon N but did not appear to reduce DIN concentrations. The longitudinal pattern of soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) varied between releases and in summer 2019 the stream became a net source of SRP despite concomitant processing of DIN. We hypothesize that low demand for P in Deadhorse Creek, as suggested by upstream SRP > 0.05 mg P L−1, and nutrient ratios indicative of N limitation, reduced instream processing of P. Furthermore, our results indicated that cool or high flow conditions may result in the export of much of the lagoon nutrient load downstream. Our findings suggest the processes that transform wastewater nutrients are overwhelmed during effluent releases. Managers should consider increasing effluent dilution via continuous release of effluent rather than pulsed delivery. However, management of upstream nutrient supply may also be needed when relying upon the self-purifying capacity of rivers.