Marine and Freshwater Research Marine and Freshwater Research Society
Advances in the aquatic sciences

Acidification of an estuarine tributary in eastern Australia due to drainage of acid sulfate soils

J Sammut, I White and MD Melville

Marine and Freshwater Research 47(5) 669 - 684
Published: 1996


Episodic acidification (pH <5) of estuarine tributaries caused by the oxidation of sulfidic floodplain sediments is widespread in eastern Australia. Drainage and flood mitigation works promote oxidation and the export of sulfuric acid and dissolved aluminium and iron into streams. This paper examines the acidification of a tidal reach on the Richmond River, New South Wales. Acid discharge is controlled by the floodplain water balance, drainage of shallow acid groundwater, and tidal floodgate operation. Floodgates store acid waters for more than six months. Acid discharges ranged from short pulses during light rains to ~950 t of sulfuric acid in a major flood that acidified the reach for over seven weeks. Extensive iron flocs accompanied acidification and coated the benthos. The chemistry of the reach reflected mixing of acid groundwater with upland waters and showed pH-dependent enhancement or depletion of species relative to chloride. Concentrations of monomeric aluminium were over 300 times larger than local (ANZECC) guidelines and 90 km of the river were acidified after floods. The estimated rate of sulfuric acid production from the floodplain is ~300 kg ha-1 year-1 and discharge may occur for over 1000 years. Management options are considered; however, the long-term consequences of acidification of tidal reaches are unknown.

© CSIRO 1996

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