Urban stormwater and combined sewer overflow (CSO) discharges are important sources of sediment and contaminants (trace metals, PAHs, nutrients and road salts), and cause changes in flow, sediment, chemical and thermal regimes of receiving waters. Over the past several years, benthic conditions of streams representing a range of exposure environments were assessed in Hamilton, Toronto, Oshawa and Kingston, Ontario. Studies progressed from initial surveys of sediment contaminant levels, sediment toxicity and benthic invertebrate community structure to more spatially intensive sampling and experimental approaches that included the use of artificial substrates, in situ water toxicity tests and measurements of contaminant bioaccumulation.
Results showed that while sediments and some biota at sites exposed to wet-weather discharges were often contaminated with metals and PAHs and enriched with nutrients, significant biological degradation measured by sediment toxicity or depauperated benthic communities was not evident. Exposure to stormwater discharges at sites below outfalls could alter the composition of benthic communities, but these effects were not strongly related to contaminant concentrations in sediment or invertebrate tissue. No outfall-associated toxicity was observed for caged amphipods held in the water column.
Effects of wet-weather discharges on benthic communities at the urban stream sites studied appear to be small, and their detection was limited by several inherent conditions, including natural heterogeneity in the distribution of benthic invertebrates, episodic (intermittent) exposure to discharges and contaminant fluxes allowing some recovery, “background” levels of disturbance, poorly delineated changes in communities caused by physical effects such as flow and sediment transport, and community response dynamics. Detection of stormwater discharge effects should be improved by sampling on smaller temporal and multiple spatial scales to better quantify stressor exposure and invertebrate responses.