Effects of Turbidity and Suspended Solids on Salmonids
Berman, Cara H.
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Human activities in Northwestern watersheds, including logging, grazing, agriculture, mining, road building, urbanization, and commercial construction contribute to periodic pulses or chronic levels of suspended sediment in streams. Suspended sediment is associated with negative effects on the spawning, growth, and reproduction of salmonids. Effects on salmonids will differ based on their developmental stage. Suspended sediments may affect salmonids by altering their physiology, behavior, and habitat, all of which may lead to physiological stress and reduced survival rates. A sizable body of data (laboratory and field-based) has been gathered in North America focusing on the relationship between turbidity, total suspended sediments, and salmonid health. The controlled environment of laboratory studies tends to give clearer results than field studies. Understanding the relationship between turbidity measurements, suspended sediments, and their effects on salmonids at various life stages will assist agencies implementing transportation projects to devise techniques to reduce temporary and chronic erosion and sedimentation associated with these activities. There are three primary ways in which sediment in the water column is measured: turbidity, total suspended solids, and water clarity. While these measures are frequently correlated with one another, the strength of correlation may vary widely between samples from different monitoring sites and between different watersheds. Turbidity is currently in widespread use by resource managers, partially due to the ease of taking turbidity measurements. In addition, current state regulations addressing suspended sediment are usually NTU-based. The disadvantage of turbidity is that it is only an indicator of suspended sediment effects, rather than a direct measure, and may not accurately reflect the effect on salmonids. Protection of Washington State’s salmonids requires that transportation officials consider the effect of suspended sediments released into streams during transportation projects. Many state and provincial criteria are based on a threshold of exceedance for background levels of turbidity. However, determining natural background levels of turbidity is a difficult endeavor. Turbidity measures may be affected by 1) differing physical processes between watersheds including geologic, hydrologic and hydraulic conditions; 2) legacy issues (activities historically conducted in the watershed); and 3) problems with instrumentation and repeatability of turbidity measurements. Altered systems may not provide accurate baseline conditions. The inconsistent correlation between turbidity measurements and mass of suspended solids, as well as the difficulty in achieving repeatability using turbidimeters contributes to concerns that turbidity may not be a consistent and reliable tool determining the effects of suspended solids on salmonids. Other factors, such as life stage, time of year, size and angularity of sediment, availability of off-channel and tributary habitat, and composition of sediment may be more telling in determining the effect of sediment on salmonids in Northwestern rivers. Although salmonids are found in naturally turbid river systems in the Northwest, this does not necessarily mean that salmonids in general can tolerate increases over time of suspended sediments. An understanding of sediment size, shape, and composition, salmonid species and life history stages, cumulative and synergistic stressor effects, and overall habitat complexity and availability in a watershed is required. For short-term construction projects, operators will need to measure background turbidities on a case by case basis to determine if they are exceeding regulations. However, transportation projects may also produce long-term, chronic effects. Shortterm pulses will presumably have a different effect on salmonids than chronic exposure. To adequately protect salmonids during their freshwater residence, TSS data on physiological, behavioral, and habitat effects should be viewed in a layer context incorporating both the spatial geometry of suitable habitat and the temporal changes associated with life history, year class, and climate variability. Spatial and temporal considerations provide the foundation to decipher legacy effects as well as cumulative and synergistic effects on salmonid protection and recovery.
- The Water Center