Selenium in the upper Blackfoot River watershed, southeastern Idaho, 2001-12

Scientific Investigations Report 2014-5203
Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management
By: , and 



The upper Blackfoot River in southeastern Idaho receives runoff from 12 large phosphate mines. Waste shales that are removed to access the phosphate ore are highly enriched with selenium, resulting in elevated selenium in runoff from the mine waste dumps. In 2001, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began monitoring streamflow, selenium, and other water-quality parameters at a single location near the outlet of the upper Blackfoot River to the Blackfoot Reservoir. Water samples primarily were collected by a flow triggered, automated pump sampler, supplemented by manual point and equal-width integrated manual samples.


The approach to monitoring concentrations and streamflow over time at a fixed location is ideal for evaluating temporal trends, but provides no information about the relative source contributions from the mine waste dumps draining into various tributaries. In 2001, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ) began an annual, mid-May, synoptic survey of selenium concentrations and streamflow at 21 locations along the main stem Blackfoot River and its tributaries. Individually, neither the intensive USGS sampling at the outlet nor the IDEQ annual synoptic sampling provides a comprehensive view of selenium runoff in the Blackfoot River watershed. Together, the efforts are complementary; therefore, in this report, results are presented from both sampling efforts.


The USGS collected time-series data from 2001 to 2012 at a fixed location, the Blackfoot River near the outlet of the reservoir, near Henry, Idaho (USGS streamgage 13063000). Dissolved selenium concentrations from 450 filtered samples collected at this site ranged from 0.5 to 11.4 micrograms per liter (μg/L). The State of Idaho chronic aquatic life criterion concentration of 5 μg/L was exceeded in 31 percent of the samples, with most exceedances occurring during May of each year. No exceedances of the selenium criterion were recorded in months other than April, May, or June. Concentrations of selenium in unfiltered and filtered samples were similar, and concentrations from samples collected by depth and width integrated methods were similar to those collected by grab (point) samples, indicating that the grab samples adequately represent selenium concentrations across the entire river cross section. In speciation analyses made during 2003 and 2004, the median percentage of total selenium as selenate was 81 percent, ranging from 17 to 98 percent, and the median percentage of total selenium as selenite was 19 percent, ranging from 2 to 83 percent of the total selenium. During the period of study, selenium concentrations had an upward trend during the lowflow season of August–October. Time trends were not obvious during other seasons. Selenium daily loads varied by more than a factor of 900 during the study period and ranged from 0.03 kilograms per day (kg/d) to more than 24 kg/d. Annual maximum daily loads of selenium varied over nearly a factor of 12, ranging from about 2 to 24 kg/d.


For the annual spring synoptic samples collected by the IDEQ along the main stem Blackfoot River and major tributaries, selenium concentrations ranged from less than 2 to 870 μg/L in 176 samples. In most years, the synoptic sampling showed that the majority of the selenium loads passing the USGS streamgage at the outlet of the watershed could be attributed to a single tributary, East Mill Creek, which enters the Blackfoot River through Spring Creek. Selenium loads decreased by about half from East Mill Creek before reaching the Blackfoot River, suggesting that much selenium is at least temporarily removed from the water column by uptake by aquatic vegetation or by losses to sediment. Similar decreases in selenium loads occurred through the main stem Blackfoot River before reaching the outlet in low flow years, but not in high flow years.

Suggested Citation

Mebane, C.A., Mladenka, G.C., Van Every, Lynn, Williams, M.L., Hardy, M.A., and Garbarino, J.R., 2014, Selenium in the upper Blackfoot River watershed, southeastern Idaho, 2001–12, with an appendix on selenium speciation analytical methods, by Garbarino, J.R. (ver.1.1, August 2015): U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2014-5203, 34 p., plus appendixes,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Selenium in the upper Blackfoot River watershed, southeastern Idaho, 2001-12
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2014-5203
DOI 10.3133/sir20145203
Edition Version 1: Originally posted November 5, 2014; Version 1.1: August 2015
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Idaho Water Science Center
Description Report: vi, 34 p.; 5 Appendixes
Time Range Start 2001-01-01
Time Range End 2012-12-31
Country United States
State Idaho
Other Geospatial Blackfoot River watershed
Datum North American Datum of 1983
Projection Transverse Mercator projection
Scale 100000
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details