Uncertainties in selected river water quality data
- UFZ – Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Department of Hydrological Modelling, Brueckstrasse 3a, 39114 Magdeburg, Germany
Abstract. Monitoring of surface waters is primarily done to detect the status and trends in water quality and to identify whether observed trends arise from natural or anthropogenic causes. Empirical quality of river water quality data is rarely certain and knowledge of their uncertainties is essential to assess the reliability of water quality models and their predictions. The objective of this paper is to assess the uncertainties in selected river water quality data, i.e. suspended sediment, nitrogen fraction, phosphorus fraction, heavy metals and biological compounds. The methodology used to structure the uncertainty is based on the empirical quality of data and the sources of uncertainty in data (van Loon et al., 2005). A literature review was carried out including additional experimental data of the Elbe river. All data of compounds associated with suspended particulate matter have considerable higher sampling uncertainties than soluble concentrations. This is due to high variability within the cross section of a given river. This variability is positively correlated with total suspended particulate matter concentrations. Sampling location has also considerable effect on the representativeness of a water sample. These sampling uncertainties are highly site specific. The estimation of uncertainty in sampling can only be achieved by taking at least a proportion of samples in duplicates. Compared to sampling uncertainties, measurement and analytical uncertainties are much lower. Instrument quality can be stated well suited for field and laboratory situations for all considered constituents. Analytical errors can contribute considerably to the overall uncertainty of river water quality data. Temporal autocorrelation of river water quality data is present but literature on general behaviour of water quality compounds is rare. For meso scale river catchments (500–3000 km2) reasonable yearly dissolved load calculations can be achieved using biweekly sample frequencies. For suspended sediments none of the methods investigated produced very reliable load estimates when weekly concentrations data were used. Uncertainties associated with loads estimates based on infrequent samples will decrease with increasing size of rivers.