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Scientific Investigations Report 2012-5272

The Occurrence of Trace Elements in Bed Sediment Collected from Areas of Varying Land Use and Potential Effects on Stream Macroinvertebrates in the Conterminous Western United States, Alaska, and Hawaii, 1992–2000

By Angela P. Paul, Nicholas V. Paretti, Dorene E. MacCoy, Anne M.D. Brasher

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (2.9 MB) Abstract

As part of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program of the U.S. Geological Survey, this study examines the occurrence of nine trace elements in bed sediment of varying mineralogy and land use and assesses the possible effects of these trace elements on aquatic-macroinvertebrate community structure. Samples of bed sediment and macroinvertebrates were collected from 154 streams at sites representative of undeveloped, agricultural, urban, mined, or mixed land-use areas and 12 intermediate-scale ecoregions within the conterminous western United States, Alaska, and Hawaii from 1992 to 2000. The nine trace elements evaluated during this study—arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), copper (Cu), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), nickel (Ni), selenium (Se), and zinc (Zn)—were selected on the basis of potential ecologic significance and availability of sediment-quality guidelines. At most sites, the occurrence of these trace elements in bed sediment was at concentrations consistent with natural geochemical abundance, and the lowest concentrations were in bed-sediment samples collected from streams in undeveloped and agricultural areas. With the exception of Zn at sampling sites influenced by historic mining-related activities, median concentrations of all nine trace elements in bed sediment collected from sites representative of the five general land-use areas were below concentrations predicted to be harmful to aquatic macroinvertebrates. The highest concentrations of As, Cd, Pb, and Zn were in bed sediment collected from mined areas. Median concentrations of Cu and Ni in bed sediment were similarly enriched in areas of mining, urban, and mixed land use. Concentrations of Cr and Ni appear to originate largely from geologic sources, especially in the western coastal states (California, Oregon, and Washington), Alaska, and Hawaii. In these areas, naturally high concentrations of Cr and Ni can exceed concentrations that may adversely affect aquatic macroinvertebrates. Generally, Hg concentrations were below the sediment-quality guideline for this trace element but appeared elevated in urbanized areas and at sites contaminated by historic mining practices. Lastly, although there was no distinctive pattern in Se concentrations with land use, median bed-sediment concentrations were slightly elevated in urbanized areas.

Macroinvertebrate community structure was influenced by topographic, geologic, climatic, and in-stream characteristics. To account for inherent distribution patterns resulting from these influences, samples of macroinvertebrates were stratified by ecoregion to assess the influence of trace elements on community structure. Cumulative toxic units (CTUs) were used to evaluate gradients in trace-element concentrations in mixture. Correlation analyses among the trace elements under different land-use conditions indicate that trace-element mixtures vary among bed sediment and can have a marked influence on CTU composition. Macroinvertebrate response to bed-sediment trace-element exposure was evident only at the most highly contaminated sites, notably at sites classified as contaminated by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) as a result of historic mining activities. Results of this study agree with the findings of other studies evaluating trace-element exposure to in-stream macroinvertebrate community structure in that generally lower richness metrics and taxa dominance occur in streams where high trace-element enrichment occurs; however, not all streams in all areas have the same characterizing taxa. In the mountain and xeric ecosystems, the mayfly, Baetis sp.; the Diptera, Simulium sp.; caddisflies in the family Hydropsychiidae; midges in the family Orthocladiinae; and the worms belonging to Turbellaria and Naididae all demonstrated resilience to trace-element exposure and, in some cases, possible changes in physical habitat within stream ecosystems. The taxa characteristics within the Ozark Highland ecoregion were different than other ecoregions as evidenced by generally more diverse mayfly populations. In addition, Baetis sp. was common and dominated many of the mayfly populations found in the Rocky Mountain streams within the Mountain Southern Rockies and Mountain Northern Rockies ecoregions; however, within the Ozark Highland ecoregion, Tricorythodes sp. appeared to be more common than Baetis sp.

First posted December 31, 2012

For additional information contact:
Director, Nevada Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2730 N. Deer Run Road
Carson City, Nevada 89701

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Suggested citation:

Paul, A.P., Paretti, N.V., MacCoy, D.E., and Brasher, A.M.D., 2012, The occurrence of trace elements in bed sediment collected from areas of varying land use and potential effects on stream macroinvertebrates in the conterminous western United States, Alaska, and Hawaii, 1992–2000 : U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5272, 55 p.




Purpose and Scope

Description of Study Areas


Trace-Element Concentrations in Bed Sediment

Macroinvertebrate Communities and Habitat Characteristics

Trace Elements and Macroinvertebrates in the Hawaiian Islands

Summary and Conclusions


References Cited


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