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Professional Paper 1813

Mercury and Methylmercury in Reservoirs in Indiana

By Martin R. Risch and Amanda L. Fredericksen

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (6.58 MB)Abstract

Mercury (Hg) is an element that occurs naturally, but evidence suggests that human activities have resulted in increased amounts being released to the atmosphere and land surface. When Hg is converted to methylmercury (MeHg) in aquatic ecosystems, MeHg accumulates and increases in the food web so that some fish contain levels which pose a health risk to humans and wildlife that consume these fish. Reservoirs unlike natural lakes, are a part of river systems that are managed for flood control. Data compiled and interpreted for six flood-control reservoirs in Indiana showed a relation between Hg transport, MeHg formation in water, and MeHg in fish that was influenced by physical, chemical, and biological differences among the reservoirs. Existing information precludes a uniform comparison of Hg and MeHg in all reservoirs in the State, but factors and conditions were identified that can indicate where and when Hg and MeHg levels in reservoirs could be highest.

As part of a statewide monitoring network for Hg and MeHg in Indiana streams, 66 water samples were collected from four reservoir tailwater sites (downstream near the dams) on a quarterly schedule for 5 years. The reservoirs were Brookville Lake, Cagles Mill Lake, J. Edward Roush Lake, and Mississinewa Lake. Particulate-bound Hg concentrations were significantly lower in tailwater samples than in samples from free-flowing streams in the statewide network. (Free-flowing streams were not affected by dams and were not upstream from these reservoirs.) These data indicated the reduced flow velocity of water upstream from dams was allowing particulate-bound Hg to settle out of the water in the reservoir pools. The concentration ratios of MeHg to Hg were significantly higher in the tailwater samples than in samples from free-flowing streams, and the MeHg to Hg ratios were significantly higher in summer than in other seasons.

To evaluate the conditions related to MeHg formation, pools of three reservoirs (Brookville Lake, Monroe Lake, and Patoka Lake) were investigated during summer hydrologic conditions. Water temperature and dissolved oxygen were measured from the water surface to the lake bottom at 10 to 17 transects across each reservoir to identify three thermal strata, defined by water temperature, dissolved oxygen concentration, and depth. Depth-specific water samples were collected from these thermal strata throughout each reservoir, from the headwaters to the dam and from the tailwater. Mercury concentrations higher than 0.04 nanogram per liter (ng/L) were detected in all 53 samples, and MeHg concentrations higher than 0.04 ng/L were detected in 53 percent of the samples.

The investigation found a zone of water below 8 or 9 meters, with temperatures less than 18 degrees Celsius and dissolved oxygen less than 3.5 milligrams per liter, extending through nearly half the reservoir area in Monroe Lake and Patoka Lake. This zone had abundant dissolved MeHg and concentration ratios of dissolved MeHg to Hg that ranged from 25 to 82 percent. This zone also had water with pH less than 7 and decreased dissolved sulfate, conditions indicating sulfate reduction by microorganisms that promoted a high potential for the conversion of Hg to MeHg. Reservoir outflow came from this zone at Monroe Lake and contributed to a tailwater concentration ratio for dissolved MeHg to Hg of 56 percent. Reservoir outflow at Patoka Lake was not from this zone, and dissolved MeHg was not detected in the tailwater. In contrast, samples from the summer pool at Brookville Lake had no MeHg detections even though Hg was detected, probably because the water pH higher than 7 inhibited sulfate reduction and did not promote the conversion of Hg to MeHg.

Mercury and MeHg concentrations and the concentration ratios of MeHg to Hg in water varied among the six reservoirs in Indiana, and the differences were related to a combination of factors that could apply to other reservoirs. In areas with moderate to high rates of atmospheric Hg wet and dry deposition, Hg runoff and transport to streams and reservoirs was potentially highest for reservoirs with heavily forested watersheds in steep terrains of near-surface bedrock. Methylmercury concentrations and concentration ratios of MeHg to Hg were highest for reservoirs with the longest summer pools and highest inflow-to-outflow retention times, where water-chemistry conditions favoring sulfate reduction promoted conversion of Hg to MeHg.

Methylmercury (reported as Hg) in fish-tissue samples collected for the State fish consumption advisory program was used to describe MeHg food-web accumulation and magnification in the reservoirs. The highest percentages of fish-tissue samples with Hg concentrations that exceeded the criterion of 0.30 milligram per kilogram for protection of human health were from Monroe Lake (38 percent) and Patoka Lake (33 percent). A review of the number and size of fish species caught from these two reservoirs resulted in two implications for fish consumption by humans. First, the highest numbers of fish harvested for potential human consumption were species more likely to have MeHg concentrations lower than the human-health criterion (crappie, bluegill, and catfish). Second, although largemouth bass were likely to have MeHg concentrations higher than the human-health criterion, they were caught and released more often than they were harvested. However, the average size largemouth bass (in both reservoirs) and above-average size walleye (in Monroe Lake) that were harvested for potential human consumption were likely to have MeHg concentrations higher than the human-health criterion.

First posted May 20, 2015

For additional information, contact:
Director, Indiana Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
5957 Lakeside Blvd.
Indianapolis, IN 46278

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Suggested citation:

Risch, M.R., and Fredericksen, A.L., 2015, Mercury and methylmercury in reservoirs in Indiana: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1813, 57 p.,

ISSN 2330-7102 (online)





Mercury and Methylmercury in Reservoirs in Indiana

Summary and Conclusions


Appendix 1. Supplemental Data

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