Immediate and legacy effects of urban pollution on river ecosystem functioning: A mesocosm experiment

Effluents from urban wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) consist of complex mixtures of substances that can affect processes in the receiving ecosystems. Some of these substances (toxic contaminants) stress biological activity at all concentrations, while others (e.g., nutrients) subsidize it at low concentrations and stress it above a threshold, causing subsidy-stress responses. Thus, the overall effects of WWTP effluents depend mostly on their composition and the dilution capacity of the receiving water bodies. We assessed the immediate and legacy effects of WWTP effluents in artificial streams, where we measured the uptake of soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) by the biofilm, biomass accrual, benthic metabolism and organic matter decomposition (OMD). In a first phase (32 d), the channels were subjected to a gradient of effluent contribution, from pure stream water to pure effluent. WWTP effluent affected the ecosystem processes we measured, although we found no clear subsidy-stress patterns except for biofilm biomass accrual. Instead, most of the processes were subsidized, although they showed complex and process-specific patterns. Benthic metabolism and OMD were subsidized without saturation, as they peaked at medium and high levels of pollution, respectively, but they never fell below control levels. SRP uptake was the only process that decreased with increasing effluent concentration. In a second phase of the experiment (23 d), all channels were kept on pure stream water to analyse the legacy effects of the effluent. For most of the processes, there were clear legacy effects, which followed either subsidy, stress, or subsidy-stress patterns. SRP uptake capacity was stressed with increasing pollution legacy, whereas algal accrual and benthic metabolism continued being subsidized. Conversely, biofilm biomass accrual and OMD showed no legacy effects. Overall, the WWTP effluent caused complex and process-specific responses in our experiment, mainly driven by the mixed contribution of subsidizers and stressors. These results help improving our understanding of the effects of urban pollution on stream ecosystem functioning ​
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