Water velocity and groundwater upwelling influence benthic algal biomass in a sandy tropical river: implications for water-resource development


Benthic algae are a major source of carbon supporting aquatic food webs in northern Australia, but little is known about the factors that regulate algal production. We surveyed benthic algal biomass in mainstem habitats of an unregulated sandy tropical river (the Fitzroy River) during a base-flow period. We used predictive models to reveal the physical and chemical parameters controlling algal biomass in mainstem habitats. We found that water velocity was an important driver—algal biomass was lower at higher water velocities. Subsurface flow was also influential—algal biomass increased in locations where groundwater upwelling occurred, as evident by a positive relationship between algal biomass and elevated radon and ammonium concentrations. In this sand-bed river, it is likely that high water velocity destabilises the sandy substrate reducing the establishment of algal biofilms. However, where water velocity is low enough for algal establishment, groundwater upwelling likely promotes algal growth by delivering limiting resources and/or creating stable conditions that promote algal production. The importance of surface and subsurface-flow conditions to benthic algal biomass means that any modification to the Fitzroy River catchment that alters dry-season longitudinal flows (via river regulation) or groundwater levels (via groundwater extraction) may directly influence river algal production.

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Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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We acknowledge the Nyikina-Mangala Traditional Owners of the country in which this study took place and the Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation and the Kimberley Land Council for facilitating the research. We thank John Watson (traditional owner), Marlon Smith (Walalakoo Ranger), the Ymardoo Warra Rangers, Damien Giles (Ranger co-ordinator) and Karen Dayman (Kimberley Land Council/NESP). We thank Chris Keogh for assistance with field sampling, Jennifer Middleton, Michael Smirk and Chris Brouwer for laboratory nutrient analyses and Daniel Gwinn for his statistical advice. This project was supported through funding from the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub Project 1.3.3), Griffith University and the University of Western Australia.

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Table S1. The Spearman rank correlation coefficients and P-values for correlations among explanatory variables and benthic algal biomass fractions. (XLSX 28 kb)

Table S2. Model-averaged parameters for all terms included in the global models (all data and subset data) predicting algal biomass for each algal fraction (total chlorophyll a, diatoms, green algae, and cyanobacteria). (XLSX 16 kb)

Figure S1. Plots of the relationship between water velocity and algal biomass for (a) total algal biomass (i.e. total chlorophyll a), (b) green algae, (c) diatoms, and (d) cyanobacteria. (TIFF 16875 kb)

Figure S2. Plots of the relationship between 222Rn concentrations and algal biomass for (a) total algal biomass (i.e. total chlorophyll a), (b) green algae, (c) diatoms, and (d) cyanobacteria. (TIFF 16875 kb)

Figure S3. Plots of the relationship between water velocity and algal biomass for (a) total algal biomass (i.e. total chlorophyll a), (b) green algae, (c) diatoms, and (d) cyanobacteria. (TIFF 16875 kb)

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Burrows, R.M., Beesley, L., Douglas, M.M. et al. Water velocity and groundwater upwelling influence benthic algal biomass in a sandy tropical river: implications for water-resource development. Hydrobiologia (2020).

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  • Primary production
  • Radon
  • Nutrients
  • Tropical river
  • Floodplain