Water quality impacts of urban and non-urban arid-land runoff on the Rio Grande

Sci Total Environ. 2020 Aug 10;729:138443. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138443. Epub 2020 Apr 24.


Urban surface runoff from storms impacts the water quality dynamics of downstream ecosystems. While these effects are well-documented in mesic regions, they are not well constrained for arid watersheds, which sustain longer dry periods, receive intense but short-lived storms, and where stormwater drainage networks are generally isolated from sewage systems. We used a network of high-frequency in situ water quality sensors located along the Middle Rio Grande to determine surface runoff origins during storms and track rapid changes in physical, chemical, and biological components of water quality. Specific conductivity (SpCond) patterns were a reliable indicator of source, distinguishing between runoff events originating primarily in urban (SpCond sags) or non-urban (SpCond spikes) catchments. Urban events were characterized by high fluorescent dissolved organic matter (fDOM), low dissolved oxygen (including short-lived hypoxia <2 mg/L), smaller increases in turbidity and varied pH response. In contrast, non-urban events showed large turbidity spikes, smaller dissolved oxygen sags, and consistent pH sags. Principal component analysis distinguished urban and non-urban events by dividing physical and biogeochemical water quality parameters, and modeling of DO along the same reach demonstrated consistently higher oxygen demand for an urban event compared to a non-urban event. Based on our analysis, urban runoff poses more potential ecological harm, while non-urban runoff poses a larger problem for drinking water treatment. The comparison of our results to other reports of urban stormwater quality suggest that water quality responses to storm events in urban landscapes are consistent across a range of regional climates.

Keywords: Arid regions; High frequency monitoring; Hypoxia; River ecology; Urban and non-urban runoff.