Mercury sources and budget for the Snake River above a hydroelectric reservoir complex

Science of the Total Environment
By: , and 



Understanding sources of mercury (Hg) and methylmercury (MeHg) to a water body is critical for management but is often complicated by poorly characterized Hg inputs and in situ processes, such as inorganic Hg methylation. In this study, we determined inorganic Hg and MeHg concentrations and loads (filter-passing and particulate fractions) for a semi-arid 164-kilometer stretch of the Snake River above the Hells Canyon Complex, a Hg-impaired hydroelectric reservoir complex on the Idaho-Oregon border, and used water quality measurements and Hg stable isotope ratios to create a comprehensive Hg source budget for the river. Results show that whereas most of the streamflow to the study reach comes from the main branch of the Snake River (i.e., the upstream watershed), major tributaries within the study reach contribute a greater proportion of inorganic Hg and MeHg loads. Mercury stable-isotope analyses highlight that Hg within the tributaries is predominantly associated with geologic deposits and snowmelt sources, the latter reflecting wet deposition. Surprisingly, irrigation return drains contribute 40–50 % of particulate inorganic Hg loads despite being ≤4.3 % of the overall water budget. Together, tributaries and irrigation return drains account for 97–100 % of the inorganic Hg and streamflow to the study reach, but ~65 % of the MeHg, indicating in-stream and riparian methylation may be an important and previously unrecognized source of MeHg. Streamflow, total suspended solids, dissolved organic carbon, and agricultural land cover were found to be important controls on the mobilization and transport of different Hg species and fractions. This study represents the first fluvial budget for Hg in the Snake River that accounts for particulate and filter-passing Hg species from both major tributaries and irrigation return drains, and expands our understanding of Hg sources and methylation processes within semi-arid environments. This information is critical to inform management decisions related to elevated Hg burdens in biota.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Mercury sources and budget for the Snake River above a hydroelectric reservoir complex
Series title Science of the Total Environment
DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.167961
Volume 907
Year Published 2023
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Idaho Water Science Center, Upper Midwest Water Science Center
Description 167961, 13 p.
Country United States
State Idaho, Nevada, Oregon
Other Geospatial Snake River Basin
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