The objective of this study was to evaluate the effect of agricultural pollution on periphyton in streams and rivers of southern Québec. We sampled benthic algae incubated from mid-July to mid-August on artificial substrates at 29 sites and analysed the variations in community structure and total community biomass. Diatom community structure as well as total benthic algae community were analysed. Water samples were taken to provide background chemical information, and land use data were also obtained. Preliminary tests showed that colonisation of the artificial substrates (unglazed ceramic tiles) resulted in biomass levels (Chlorophyll a and ash-free dry weight) and species composition that were not statistically different from those on natural rock substrates. The canonical correspondence analyses showed that pH, conductivity and suspended solids were the most significant environmental variables accounting for variations among sites and diatom community structure. No additional resolving power was obtained by including cyanobacteria, green algae and flagellates. This total community analysis substantially increased variance and sample processing time while reducing the relationship with environmental variables. These results indicate that an analysis based exclusively on diatoms provided the optimal approach. Traditional nutrient measurements (phosphorus and nitrogen) did not explain a significant part of the variance in the species composition among sites. The ordination analyses clearly separated agriculturally-impacted streams from reference sites, but no significant grouping was observed related to the intensity and type of agriculture, indicating the greater importance of local farming practices. The use of periphyton as a bioindicator provides an integrated measurement of water quality as experienced by the aquatic biota, and therefore offers a useful addition to physico-chemical water quality monitoring strategies.

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