Historical mining in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin of northern Idaho has resulted in elevated concentrations of some trace metals (particularly cadmium, lead, and zinc) in water and sediment of Coeur d’Alene Lake and downstream in the Spokane River in Idaho and Washington. These elevated trace-metal concentrations in the Spokane River have raised concerns about potential contamination of ground water in the underlying Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for the city of Spokane and surrounding areas. A study conducted as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water-Quality Assessment Program examined the interaction of the river and aquifer using hydrologic and chemical data along a losing reach of the Spokane River. The river and ground water were extensively monitored over a range of hydrologic conditions at a streamflow-gaging station and 25 monitoring wells situated from 40 to 3,500 feet from the river. River stage, ground-water levels, water temperature, and specific conductance were measured hourly to biweekly. Water samples were collected on nearly a monthly basis between 1999 and 2001 from the Spokane River and were collected up to nine times between June 2000 and August 2001 from the monitoring wells.
Hydrologic and chemical data indicate that the Spokane River recharges the Spokane Valley/
Rathdrum Prairie aquifer along a 17-mile reach between Post Falls, Idaho, and Spokane, Washington. Ground-water levels in the near-river aquifer (less than 300 feet from the river) indicate variably saturated conditions below the river and a ground-water flow gradient away from the losing reach of the river. Calculated monthly mean losses, during water years 2000 and 2001 along a nearly 7-mile reach between two gages, ranged from near 69 to 810 cubic feet per second. Losses generally increased with increased streamflow. However, late summer warm water temperatures also appear to be a factor as losses increased due to lower viscosity as water temperatures increased. Chemical data indicated that river recharge may influence ground-water chemistry as far as 3,000 feet from the river, but ground water within a few hundred feet of the river is most affected. Major-ion concentrations, stable isotopes, and temperature of the river and ground water from near-river wells were similar and exhibited similar temporal trends, whereas ground water from wells located farther from the river generally had higher major-ion concentrations and more stable temperatures and chemistry.
Although trace-element concentrations sometimes exceeded aquatic-life criteria in the water of the Spokane River and were elevated above national median values in the bed sediment, trace-element concentrations of all river and ground-water samples were at levels less than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water standards. The Spokane River appears to be a source of cadmium, copper, zinc, and possibly lead in the near-river ground water. Dissolved cadmium, copper, and lead concentrations generally were less than 1 microgram per liter (µg/L) in the river water and ground water. During water year 2001, dissolved zinc concentrations were similar in water from near-river wells (17-71 µg/L) and the river water (22-66 µg/L), but were less than detection levels in wells farther from the river. Arsenic, found to be elevated in ground water in parts of the aquifer, does not appear to have a river source. Although the river does influence the ground-water chemistry in proximity to the river, it does not appear to adversely affect the ground-water quality to a level of human-health concern.