Assessment of river water quality using an integrated physicochemical, biological and ecotoxicological approach†
In order to maintain and improve the water quality in European rivers, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires an integrated approach for assessing water quality in a river basin. Although the WFD aims at a holistic understanding of ecosystem functioning, it does not explicitly establish cause-effect relationships between stressors and changes in aquatic communities. To overcome this limitation, the present study combines the typical WFD physicochemical and biological approaches with an ecotoxicological approach. The main goal was to assess river water quality through an integrated manner, while identifying potential risk situations for aquatic communities in the Cértima river basin (Portugal). To achieve this goal, surface water samples and macroinvertebrate specimens were collected under contrasting hydrological conditions (autumn and spring seasons) at three river sites exposed to distinct pollution levels defined according to the WFD (low, moderate and highly polluted). Physicochemical water quality status was defined according to the Portuguese classification for multipurpose surface waters, whereas biological water quality was assessed in accordance with the South Invertebrate Portuguese Index. Ecotoxicological assays included four standard species, a bacterial species (Vibrio fischeri), a unicellular algae (Pseudokirchneriella subcapitata), a macrophyte (Lemna minor) and a crustacean (Daphnia magna), which were exposed to different river water concentrations. The study sites represented a clear and pronounced gradient of pollution, from the unpolluted reference site to the sites under moderate to high anthropogenic pressure. In the latter sites, clear signs of organic pollution were found, such as low dissolved oxygen concentrations, high nutrient loads and prevalence of highly tolerant macroinvertebrate species. Despite the evident signs of pollution, no clear evidence of toxicity was observed in test species, suggesting that ecotoxicological assays using standard laboratory species and methodologies might not be suitable for assessing the effects of organic pollution. Nevertheless, the integrated methodology presented in this study provided important additional information on the Cértima's water quality status. Its wider use could contribute to a more comprehensive assessment of the effects of anthropogenic pollution on the status and functioning of aquatic ecosystems under the WFD and, thereby, improve the scientific foundations for the sustainable future management of surface water resources.