Lakes of the Peace-Athabasca Delta: Controls on nutrients, chemistry, phytoplankton, epiphyton and deposition of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs)
Wiklund, Johan Andre
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Floodplain lakes are strongly regulated by river connectivity because floodwaters exert strong influence on the water balance, the physical, chemical and biological limnological conditions, and the influx of contaminants. The Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD) in northern Alberta (Canada) is a hydrologically complex landscape and is an important node in the upper Mackenzie River Drainage Basin. The ecological integrity of the PAD is potentially threatened by multiple environmental stressors, yet our understanding of the hydroecology of this large floodplain remains underdeveloped. Indeed, ever since the planning and construction of the WAC Bennett Dam (1960s), concerns have grown over the effects of upstream human activities on the lakes of the PAD. More recently, concerns over the health of the PAD have intensified and come to the fore of national and international dialogue due to water abstraction and mining and processing activities by the rapidly expanding oil sands industry centred in Fort McMurray Alberta. Currently, widespread perception is that upstream human activities have reduced water levels and frequency of flooding at the PAD, which have lowered nutrient availability and productivity of perched basin lakes, and have increased supply of pollutants from oil sands. However, these perceptions remain based on insufficient knowledge of pre-impact conditions and natural variability. Current and past relations between hydrology and limnology of PAD lakes are mostly undocumented, particularly during the important spring freshet period when the effects of river flood waters are strongest. Similarly, knowledge of the deposition of oil-sands- related contaminants in the PAD remains insufficient to determine whether anthropogenic activities have increased the deposition of important oil-sands-related contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) relative to natural processes. Such knowledge gaps must be filled to achieve effective monitoring, policy and governance concerning impacts of industrial development and the protection of human and environmental health within the PAD and Mackenzie drainage basin. This thesis examines the effects of river flooding (and the lack of) on water clarity, nutrients, chemistry, phytoplankton abundance, epiphyton community composition and the deposition of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PACs) in lakes of the Peace-Athabasca Delta. To determine the role of flooding on contemporary epiphytic diatom communities (an abundant and diverse guild of primary producers in PAD lakes), a field experiment was conducted examining the community composition and abundance of epiphytic diatoms in four PAD lakes. Two of these four lakes had received floodwaters that spring and two had not. Epiphytic diatom communities in each lake were sampled during the peak macrophyte biomass period (summer) from two macrophyte taxa (Potamogeton zosteriformis, P. perfoliatus var. richardsonii) and from polypropylene artificial substrates previously deployed that spring. A two-way analysis of similarity (ANOSIM) test identified that epiphytic diatom community composition differed between lakes that flooded and those that did not flood. From the use of similarity percentage (SIMPER) analysis, diatom taxa were identified that discriminate between flooded and non-flooded lakes. The relative abundance of ‘strong flood indicator taxa’ was used to construct an event-scale flood record spanning the past ~180 years using analyses of sedimentary diatom assemblages from a closed-drainage lake (PAD 5). Results were verified by close agreement with an independent paleo-flood record from a nearby flood-prone oxbow lake (PAD 54) and historical records. Comparison of epiphytic diatoms in flooded and non-flooded lakes in this study provides a promising approach to detect changes in flood frequency, and may have applications for reconstructing other pulse-type disturbances such as hurricanes and pollutant spills. Additionally, this study demonstrates that artificial substrates can provide an effective bio-monitoring tool for lakes of the PAD and elsewhere. To improve our understanding of the hydrolimnological responses of lake in the PAD to flooding, repeated measurements over three years (2003-05) were made on a series of lakes along a hydrological gradient. This allowed the role of river flooding to be characterized on limnological conditions of lakes and to identify the patterns and timescales of limnological change after flooding. River floodwaters elevate lake water concentrations of suspended sediment, total phosphorus (TP), SO4 and dissolved Si (DSi), and reduce concentrations of total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN), DOC and most ions. River flooding increases limnological homogeneity among lakes, because post-flood conditions are strongly affected by the river water properties. After floodwaters recede, limnological conditions become more heterogeneous among lakes in response to diversity of local basin influences (geology, slope, vegetation, depth, fetch, and biological communities and processes), and limnological changes occur at two distinct timescales. In the weeks to months after flooding, water clarity increases as suspended sediments and TP settle out of the water column. In the absence of flooding for many years to decades, evaporative concentration leads to an increase in most nutrients (TKN, inorganic N, and dissolved P), DOC and ions. Contrary to a prevailing paradigm, these results suggest that regular flooding is not required to maintain high nutrient concentrations. In light of anticipated declines in river discharge, limnological conditions in the southern Athabasca sector will become increasingly less dominated by the short-term effects of flooding, and resemble nutrient- and solute-rich lakes in the northern Peace sector that are infrequently flooded. To determine the roles of the Athabasca River and atmospheric transport as vectors for the deposition of PACs in the PAD, sediment cores spanning the last ~200 years were collected from three lakes within the delta. A closed-drainage basin elevated well above the floodplain (PAD 18) was selected to determine temporal patterns of change in PAC concentration due to atmospheric deposition and within-basin production of PACs. Known patterns of paleohydrological changes at the other two lakes (PAD 23 and 31) were used to assess the role of the Athabasca River in delivering PACs to the Athabasca Delta during the ~200 year. Well- dated sediment core samples were analysed for 52 alkylated and non-alkylated PACs (method EPA 3540/8270-GC/MS). Sediments deposited in the non-flood prone lake (PAD 18) contained lower concentrations of total PACs compared to sediments deposited during flood-prone periods in the other study lakes, and were dominated by PACs of a pyrogenic rather than bitumen origin. Multivariate analysis of similarity tests identified that the composition of PACs differs between sediments deposited during not flood-prone and flood-prone periods. Subsequent Similarities Percentage (SIMPER) analysis was used and identified seven PACs that are preferentially deposited during flood-prone periods. These seven PACs are bitumen-associated, river-transported and account for 51% of the total PACs found in oil-sands sediment. At PAD 31, which has been flood-prone both before and since onset of Athabasca oil sands development, identified no measureable differences in both the proportion and concentration of the river-transported indicator PACs in sediments deposited pre-1940s versus post-1982. Our findings suggest that natural erosion of exposed bitumen along the banks of the Athabasca River and its tributaries is the main process delivering PACs to the Athabasca Delta, and that the spring freshet is a key period for contaminant mobilization and transport. Such key baseline environmental information is essential for informed management of natural resources and human-health concerns by provincial and federal regulatory agencies and industry, and for designing effective long-term monitoring and surveillance programs for the lower Athabasca River watershed in the face of future oil sands development. Further monitoring activities and additional paleolimnological studies of the depositional history of PACs and other oil-sands- and non-oil-sands-related contaminants is strongly recommended. Overall, results of this research identify that river flooding exerts strong control on physical, chemical and biological conditions of lakes within the PAD. However, contrary to prevailing paradigms, the PAD is not a landscape that has been adversely and permanently affected by regulation of the Peace River and industrial development of the oil sands along the Athabasca River. Instead, data from contemporary and paleolimnological studies identify that natural processes continue to dominate the delivery of water and contaminants to the delta. Regular and frequent flooding is not essential to maintain the supply of nutrients and productivity of delta lakes, which has been a widespread paradigm that developed in the absence of objective scientific data. Instead, nutrient concentrations rise over years to decades after flooding and lake productivity increases. During the thesis research, novel approaches were developed and demonstrated to be effective. Namely, new artificial substrate samplers were designed for aquatic biomonitoring that accrue periphyton and can identify the occurrence of flood events. Also, paleolimnological methods were employed to characterize the composition and concentration of PACs supplied by natural processes prior to oil sands industrial activity, which serves as an important benchmark for assessing industrial impacts. These are effective methods that can be employed to improve monitoring programs and scientific understanding of the factors affecting this world-renowned landscape, as well as floodplains elsewhere.