Mercury in the Walker River Basin, Nevada and California—Sources, Distribution, and Potential Effects on the Ecosystem
By Ralph L. Seiler, Michael S. Lico, Stanley N. Wiemeyer, and David C. Evers
Report availability: Portable Document Format (PDF).
Mercury is one of the most serious contaminants of water, sediment, and biota in Nevada because of its use during 19th century mining activities to recover gold and silver from ores. In 1998, mercury problems were discovered in the Walker River Basin of California and Nevada when blood drawn from three common loons from Walker Lake was analyzed and found to have severely elevated mercury levels. From 1999 to 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collected water, sediment, and biological samples to determine mercury sources, distribution, and potential effects on the Walker River Basin ecosystem.
Total-mercury concentrations ranged from 0.62 to 57.11 ng/L in streams from the Walker River system and ranged from 1.02 to 26.8 ng/L in lakes and reservoirs. Total-mercury concentrations in streambed sediment ranged from 1 to 13,600 ng/g, and methylmercury concentrations ranged from 0.07 to 32.1 ng/g. The sediment-effects threshold for mercury for fresh-water invertebrates is 200 ng/g, which was exceeded at nine stream sites in the Walker River Basin. The highest mercury concentrations were in streams with historic mines and milling operations in the watershed. The highest mercury concentration in sediment, 13,600 ng/g, was found in Bodie Creek near Bodie, Calif., a site of extensive gold mining and milling activities during the 19th century.
Sediment cores taken from Walker Lake show total-mercury concentrations exceeding 1,000 ng/g at depths greater than 15 cm below lake bottom. The presence of 137Cs above 8 cm in one core indicates that the upper 8 cm was deposited sometime after 1963. The mercury peak at 46 cm in that core, 2,660 ng/g, likely represents the peak of mining and gold extraction in the Bodie and Aurora mining districts between 1870 and 1880.
Mercury concentrations in aquatic invertebrates at all sites downstream from mining activities in the Rough Creek watershed, which drains the Bodie and Aurora mining districts, were elevated (range 0.263 to 0.863 µg/g, dry weight). Mercury concentrations in the Walker Lake tui chub, the most abundant and likely prey for common loons, ranged from approximately 0.09 µg/g to approximately 0.9 µg/g (wet weight). Larger tui chub in the lake, which are most likely older, had the highest mercury concentrations.
Blood samples from 94 common loons collected at Walker Lake between 1998 and 2001 contained a mean mercury concentration of 2.96 µg/g (standard deviation 1.72 µg/g). These levels were substantially higher than those found in more than 1,600 common loons tested across North America. Among the 1,600 common loons, the greatest blood mercury concentration, 9.46 µg/g, was from a loon at Walker Lake. According to risk assessments for northeastern North America, blood mercury concentrations exceeding 3.0 µg/g cause behavioral, reproductive, and physiological effects. At least 52 percent of the loons at Walker Lake are at risk for adverse effects from mercury on the basis of their blood-mercury concentrations. The larger loons staging in the spring are the most at risk group.
The elevated mercury levels found in tui chub and common loons indicate that there is a potential threat to the well being and reproduction of fish and wildlife that use Walker Lake. Wildlife that use Weber Reservoir may also be at risk because it is the first reservoir downstream from mining activities in the Bodie and Aurora areas and mercury concentrations in sediment were elevated. Additional data on mercury concentrations in top level predators, such as piscivorous fish and birds, are needed to assess public health and other environmental risks.
For more information about USGS activities in Nevada, visit the USGS Nevada District home page.