Physical heterogeneity determines interstitial fluxes in porous media. Nutrients and organic matter distribution in depth influence physicochemical and microbial processes occurring in subsurface. Columns 50 cm long were filled with sterile silica sand following five different setups combining fine and coarse sands or a mixture of both mimicking potential water treatment barriers. Water was supplied continuously to all columns during 33 days. Hydraulic conductivity, nutrients and organic matter, biofilm biomass, and activity were analyzed in order to study the effect of spatial grain size heterogeneity on physicochemical and microbial processes and their mutual interaction. Coarse sediments showed higher biomass and activity in deeper areas compared to the others; however, they resulted in incomplete denitrification, large proportion of dead bacteria in depth, and low functional diversity. Treatments with fine sediment in the upper 20 cm of the columns showed high phosphorus retention. However, low hydraulic conductivity values reported in these sediments seemed to constraint biofilm activity and biomass. On the other hand, sudden transition from coarse-to-fine grain sizes promoted a hot-spot of organic matter degradation and biomass growth at the interface. Our results reinforce the idea that grain-size disposition in subsurface sandy sediments drives the interstitial fluxes, influencing microbial processes.
Mediterranean fluvial systems are characterized by frequent periods of low flow or even drought. During low flow periods, water from wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) is proportionally large in fluvial systems. River water might be vertically transported through the hyporheic zone, and then porous medium acts as a complementary treatment system since, as water infiltrates, a suite of biogeochemical processes occurs. Subsurface sediment heterogeneity plays an important role since it influences the interstitial fluxes of the medium and drives biomass growing, determining biogeochemical reactions. In this study, WWTP water was continuously infiltrated for 3 months through two porous medium tanks: one consisting of 40 cm of fine sediment (homogeneous); and another comprised of two layers of different grain size sediments (heterogeneous), 20 cm of coarse sediment in the upper part and 20 cm of fine one in the bottom. Several hydrological, physicochemical and biological parameters were measured periodically (weekly at the start of the experiment and biweekly at the end). Analysed parameters include dissolved nitrogen, phosphorus, organic carbon, and oxygen all measured at the surface, and at 5, 20 and 40 cm depth. Variations in hydraulic conductivity with time were evaluated. Sediment samples were also analysed at three depths (surface, 20 and 40 cm) to determine bacterial density, chlorophyll content, extracellular polymeric substances, and biofilm function (extracellular enzyme activities and carbon substrate utilization profiles). Preliminary results suggest hydraulic conductivity to be the main driver of the differences in the biogeochemical processes occurring in the subsurface. At the heterogeneous tank, a low nutrient reduction throughout the whole medium is measured. In this medium, high hydraulic conductivity allows for a large amount of infiltrating water, but with a small residence time. Since some biological processes are largely time-dependent, small water residence time results in low nutrient reduction. Moreover, high nitrification and low ammonium concentration in the interface of the two grain-size layers are measured, probably related to high dissolved oxygen concentration at the coarse-fine sediment interface, further promoting accumulation of bacteria and algae. In contrast, the homogeneous tank shows low dissolved oxygen values and high denitrification in depth which could be related to lower overall hydraulic conductivity, as compared to the heterogeneous tank.
The preliminary analysis of our results indicates a key role of hydraulic conductivity on biogeochemical processes in the porous medium but, at the same time that it is strongly interacting with sediment grain-size distribution and the development of biofilm. The final scope of this study is to know the interactions between physicochemical and biological components in sediments in order to understand in detail the biogeochemical processes occurring.