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Open-File Report 2013–1070

Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management

Environmental Assessment of Water, Sediment, and Biota Collected from the Bear Creek Watershed, Colusa County, California

By James J. Rytuba, Roger L. Hothem, Brianne E. Brussee, Daniel N. Goldstein, and Jason T. May

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The Cache Creek watershed lies within California’s North Coast Range, an area with abundant geologic sources of mercury (Hg) and a long history of Hg contamination (Rytuba, 2000). Bear Creek, Cache Creek, and the North Fork of Cache Creek are the major streams of the Cache Creek watershed, encompassing 2978 km2. The Cache Creek watershed contains soils naturally enriched in Hg as well as natural springs (both hot and cold) with varying levels of aqueous Hg (Domagalski and others, 2004, Suchanek and others, 2004, Holloway and others 2009). All three tributaries are known to be significant sources of anthropogenically derived Hg from historic mines, both Hg and gold (Au), and associated ore storage/processing sites and facilities (Slotton and others, 1995, 2004; CVRWQCB, 2003; Schwarzbach and others, 2001; Gassel and others, 2005; Suchanek and others., 2004, 2008a, 2009). Historically, two of the primary sources of mercury contamination in the upper part of Bear Creek have been the Rathburn and Petray Hg Mines. 

The Rathburn Hg mine was discovered and initially mined in the early 1890s. The Rathburn and the more recently developed Petray open pit mines are localized along fault zones in serpentinite that has been altered and cut by quartz and chalcedony veins. Cold saline-carbonate springs are located perepheral to the Hg deposits and effluent from the springs locally has high concentrations of Hg (Slowey and Rytuba, 2008). Several ephemeral tributaries to Bear Creek drain the mine area which is located on federal land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (USBLM). The USBLM requested that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) measure and characterize Hg and other geochemical constituents in sediment, water, and biota to establish baseline information prior to remediation of the Rathburn and Petray mines. Samples sites were established in Bear Creek upstream and downstream from the mine area. This report is made in response to the USBLM request, the lead agency mandated to conduct a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) - Removal Site Investigation (RSI). The RSI applies to the possible removal of Hg-contaminated mine waste from Bear Creek. 

This report summarizes data obtained from field sampling of water, sediment, and biota in Bear Creek, above input from the mine area and downstream from the Rathburn-Petray mine area to the confluence with Cache Creek. Our results permit a preliminary assessment of the chemical constituents that could elevate levels of monomethyl Hg (MMeHg) in Bear Creek and its uptake by biota and provide baseline information for comparison to conditions after mine remediation is completed.

First posted February 4, 2015

This publication is online only

For additional information, contact:
Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
345 Middlefield Road, MS 901
Menlo Park, CA 94025-3591

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Suggested citation:

Rytuba, J.J., Hothem, R.L., Brussee, B.E., Goldstein, D.N., and May, J.T., 2015, Environmental assessment of water, sediment, and biota collected from the Bear Creek watershed, Colusa County, California: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2013–1070, 83 p.,

ISSN 2331-1258 (online)



Mining History and Geology

Sample Locations and Methods

Field Sampling Methods

Analytical Methods

Results and Discussion




Tables (10)

Figures (31)

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