By Donald M. Stoeckel and S. Alex Covert
In cooperation with the City of Youngstown, Ohio
The lower reaches of the Mahoning River in Youngstown, Ohio, have been characterized by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) as historically having poor water quality. Most wastewater-treatment plants (WWTPs) in the watershed did not provide secondary sewage treatment until the late 1980s. By the late 1990s, the Mahoning River still received sewer-overflow discharges from 101 locations within the city of Youngstown, Ohio. The Mahoning River in Youngstown and Mill Creek, a principal tributary to the Mahoning River in Youngstown, have not met biotic index criteria since the earliest published assessment by OEPA in 1980. Youngstown and the OEPA are working together toward the goal of meeting water-quality standards in the Mahoning River. The U.S. Geological Survey collected information to help both parties assess water quality in the area of Youngstown and to estimate bacteria and inorganic nitrogen contributions from sewer-overflow discharges to the Mahoning River.
Two monitoring networks were established in the lower Mahoning River: the first to evaluate hydrology and microbiological and chemical water quality and the second to assess indices of fish and aquatic-macroinvertebrate-community health. Water samples and water-quality data were collected from May through October 1999 and 2000 to evaluate where, when, and for how long water quality was affected by sewer-overflow discharges. Water samples were collected during dry- and wet-weather flow, and biotic indices were assessed during the first year (1999). The second year of sample collection (2000) was directed toward evaluating changes in water quality during wet-weather flow, and specifically toward assessing the effect of sewer-overflow discharges on water quality in the monitoring network.
Water-quality standards for Escherichia coli (E. coli) concentration and draft criteria for nitrate plus nitrite and total phosphorus were the regulations most commonly exceeded in the Mahoning River and Mill Creek sampling networks.
E. coli concentrations increased during wet-weather flow and remained higher than dry-weather concentrations for 48 hours after peak flow.
E. coli concentration criteria were more commonly exceeded during wet-weather flow than during dry-weather flow. Exceedances of nutrient-concentration criteria were not substantially more common during wet-weather flow.
The fish and aquatic macroinvertebrate network included Mill Creek and its tributaries but did not include the main stem of the Mahoning River. Persistent exceedances of chemical water-quality standards in Mill Creek and the presence of nutrient concentrations in excess of draft criteria may have contributed to biotic index scores that on only one occasion met State criteria throughout the fish and aquatic macroinvertebrate sampling network.
Monitored tributary streams did not contribute concentrations of E. coli, nitrate plus nitrite, or total phosphorus to the Mahoning River and Mill Creek that were higher than main-stem concentrations, but monitored WWTP and sewer-overflow discharges did contribute. Twenty-four hour load estimates of sewer-overflow discharge contributions during wet-weather flow indicated that sewer-overflow discharges contributed large loads of bacteria and inorganic nitrogen to the Mahoning River relative to the instream load. The sewer-overflow loads appeared to move as a slug of highly enriched water that passed through Youngstown on the rising limb of the storm hydrograph. The median estimated sewer-overflow load contribution of bacteria was greater than the estimated instream load by a factor of five or more; however, the median estimated sewer-overflow load of inorganic nitrogen was less than half of the estimated instream load.
Sewer-overflow discharges contributed loads of E. coli and nutrients to the Mahoning River and Mill Creek at a point where the streams already did not meet State water-quality regulations. Improvement of water quality of the Mahoning River, Mill Creek, and tributaries at Youngstown would be facilitated by reducing loads from sewer-overflow discharges within Youngstown, by identifying and reducing other sources of E. coli and nutrients within Youngstown, and by reducing discharges of E. coli, nitrate plus nitrite, and total phosphorus to the Mahoning River and Mill Creek upstream from Youngstown.
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