Storage of sediment associated nutrients and contaminants in river channel and floodplain systems.

Andrew Alexander Meharg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

240 Citations (Scopus)


Samples of fine-grained channel bed sediment and overbank floodplain deposits were collected along the main channels of the Rivers Aire (and its main tributary, the River Calder) and Swale, in Yorkshire, UK, in order to investigate downstream changes in the storage and deposition of heavy metals (Cr, Cu, Pb, Zn), total P and the sum of selected PCB congeners, and to estimate the total storage of these contaminants within the main channels and floodplains of these river systems. Downstream trends in the contaminant content of the < 63 mum fraction of channel bed and floodplain sediment in the study rivers are controlled mainly by the location of the main sources of the contaminants, which varies between rivers. In the Rivers Aire and Calder, the contaminant content of the < 63 mum fraction of channel bed and floodplain sediment generally increases in a downstream direction, reflecting the location of the main urban and industrialized areas in the middle and lower parts of the basin. In the River Swale, the concentrations of most of the contaminants examined are approximately constant along the length of the river, due to the relatively unpolluted nature of this river. However, the Pb and Zn content of fine channel bed sediment decreases downstream, due to the location of historic metal mines in the headwaters of this river, and the effect of downstream dilution with uncontaminated sediment. The magnitude and spatial variation of contaminant storage and deposition on channel beds and floodplains are also controlled by the amount of < 63 mum sediment stored on the channel bed and deposited on the floodplain during overbank events. Consequently, contaminant deposition and storage are strongly influenced by the surface area of the floodplain and channel bed. Contaminant storage on the channel beds of the study rivers is, therefore, generally greatest in the middle and lower reaches of the rivers, since channel width increases downstream. Comparisons of the estimates of total storage of specific contaminants on the channel beds of the main channel systems of the study rivers with the annual contaminant flux at the catchment outlets indicate that channel storage represents < 3% of the outlet flux and is, therefore, of limited importance in regulating that flux. Similar comparisons between the annual deposition flux of specific contaminants to the floodplains of the study rivers and the annual contaminant flux at the catchment outlet, emphasise the potential importance of floodplain deposition as a conveyance loss. In the case of the River Aire the floodplain deposition flux is equivalent to between ca. 2% (PCBs) and 36% (Pb) of the outlet flux. With the exception of PCBs, for which the value is congruent to0, the equivalent values for the River Swale range between 18% (P) and 95% (Pb). The study emphasises that knowledge of the fine-grained sediment delivery system operating in a river basin is an essential prerequisite for understanding the transport and storage of sediment-associated contaminants in river systems and that conveyance losses associated with floodplain deposition exert an important control on downstream contaminant fluxes and the fate of such contaminants. (C) 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)195-220
Number of pages25
JournalApplied Geochemistry : Journal of the International Association of Geochemistry and Cosmochemistry
Publication statusPublished - 2003


  • UK
  • OUSE


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