Mixed effects of effluents from a wastewater treatment plant on river ecosystem metabolism: Subsidy or stress?

The effluents of wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) include a complex mixture of nutrients and pollutants. Nutrients can subsidise autotrophic and heterotrophic organisms, while toxic pollutants can act as stressors, depending, for instance, on their concentration and interactions in the environment. Hence, it is difficult to predict the overall effect of WWTP effluents on river ecosystem functioning. We assessed the effects of WWTP effluents on river biofilms and ecosystem metabolism in one river segment upstream from a WWTP and three segments downstream from the WWTP and following a pollution gradient. The photosynthetic capacity and enzymatic activity of biofilms showed no change, with the exception of leucine aminopeptidase, which followed the pollution gradient most likely driven by changes in organic matter availability. The effluent produced mixed effects on ecosystem-scale metabolism. It promoted respiration (subsidy effect), probably as a consequence of enhanced availability of organic matter. On the other hand, and despite enhanced nutrient concentrations, photosynthesis-irradiance relationships showed that the effluent partly decoupled primary production from light availability, thus suggesting a stress effect. Overall, WWTP effluents can alter the balance between autotrophic and heterotrophic processes and produce spatial discontinuities in ecosystem functioning along rivers as a consequence of the mixed contribution of stressors and subsidisers ​
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