Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Potential of aquatic weeds to improve water quality in natural waterways of the Zambezi catchment.

Abstract

One prominent effect of nutrient pollution of surface waters is the mass invasion of floating plants, which can clog waterways, disrupting human use of aquatic systems. These plants are widely vilified and motivate expensive control campaigns, but their presence may be providing a poorly recognized function in the cycling of excess nutrients. The capacity for floating plants to absorb nutrients from surface water has been understood for decades, primarily from their use in constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment. Yet, in natural settings, there has not been to date any effort to quantify whether floating plant invasions represent important pools or fluxes of nutrients relative to those of the river catchments in which they occur. We found that seasonal hydrologic cycles in the Zambezi trap and flush floating plants from river choke points, such as dams and river confluences, on an annual basis. Peak plant biomass at such choke points constitutes a proxy for estimating annual plant-bound nutrient loads. We assessed the significance of floating vegetation as nutrient sinks by comparing annual plant-bound nutrient loading to conventional river nutrient loading (dissolved and particulate) for four tributaries of the Zambezi River in Zambia. We found that the relative importance of floating vegetation was greatest in the more urbanized catchments, such as the Maramba River draining the city of Livingstone, representing approximately 30% and 9% of annual digestible phosphorus and nitrogen flux respectively. We also found plant-bound phosphorus to be important in the Kafue River (19%), draining the industrial town of Kafue and extensive sugarcane plantations. These results demonstrate the great potential of floating plants to take up excess nutrients from natural river systems. Given the importance of hydrology in the life cycle of floating vegetation, controlled dam discharges may have an important role in managing them and their water quality treatment functions.