In groundwater treatment for drinking water production, the causes of nitrification problems and the effectiveness of process optimization in rapid sand filters are often not clear. To assess both issues, the performance of a full-scale groundwater filter with nitrification problems and another filter with complete nitrification and pretreatment by subsurface aeration was monitored over nine months. Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) targeting the amoA gene of bacteria and archaea and activity measurements of ammonia oxidation were used to regularly evaluate water and filter sand samples. Results demonstrated that subsurface aeration stimulated the growth of ammonia-oxidizing prokaryotes (AOP) in the aquifer. Cell balances, using qPCR counts of AOP for each filter, showed that the inoculated AOP numbers from the aquifer were marginal compared with AOP numbers detected in the filter. Excessive washout of AOP was not observed and did not cause the nitrification problems. Ammonia-oxidizing archaea grew in both filters, but only in low numbers compared to bacteria. The cell-specific nitrification rate in the sand and backwash water samples was high for the subsurface aerated filter, but systematically much lower for the filter with nitrification problems. From this, we conclude that incomplete nitrification was caused by nutrient limitation.
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