The capacity of a 3rd-order Ozark Plateau stream (Arkansas, USA) to take up (or remove) nutrient inputs from a rural wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) was examined using nutrient spiraling methods. Short-term nutrient additions often are used to assess nutrient uptake length, where an exponential decline in the concentration of the added nutrient reflects gross nutrient uptake. We applied this quantitative framework using WWTP effluent as a stream nutrient addition, and estimated net nutrient uptake length (Snet), mass transfer coefficient (vf-net), and uptake rate (Unet) in Columbia Hollow, Arkansas. Water samples were collected at a reference site upstream of the WWTP input and at 6 sites downstream of the WWTP (0.3–2.7 km). Input from the WWTP significantly increased discharge, temperature, conductivity, soluble reactive P (SRP), and NH4-N, and decreased pH and NO3-N 0.3 km downstream from the point source. When P additions from the WWTP were low, stored SRP was released from the stream reach to maintain high water-column concentrations. Dissolved inorganic N was not retained in Columbia Hollow. Most or all of the NH4-N added from the point source was converted to NO3-N, resulting in net nitrification rates of 7 to 31 g NO3-N m−2 d−1. The relationship between dilution-corrected concentrations and distance from the WWTP input indicated no significant nutrient retention, or that several stream kilometers were required before N and P were taken up. Unet typically was >7- to 10-fold higher and vf-net estimates were 10- to 100-fold lower than values reported for undisturbed streams, indicating low relative nutrient demand. Rather than acting as a nutrient sink, Columbia Hollow appeared to be acting as a short-term storage zone for P and a transformer of N. Thus, the effect of this rural WWTP on the stream was profound, distorting N and P cycling in Columbia Hollow.
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