Water Resources of Colorado

Hydrology and Water Quality of Elkhead Creek and Elkhead Reservoir near Craig, Colorado, July 1995–September 2001

By Gerhard Kuhn, Michael R. Stevens, and John G. Elliott

Available from the U.S. Geological Survey, Branch of Information Services, Box 25286, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225, USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 03-4220, 63 p., 39 figs.

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The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, collected and analyzed baseline streamflow and water-quality information for Elkhead Creek and water-quality and trophic-state information for Elkhead Reservoir from July 1995 through September 2001.

In the study area, Elkhead Creek is a meandering, alluvial stream dominated by snowmelt in mountainous headwaters that produces most of the annual discharge volume and discharge peaks during late spring and early summer. During most of water year 1996 (a typical year), daily mean discharge at station 09246400 (downstream from the reservoir) was similar to daily mean discharge at station 09246200 (upstream from the reservoir). Flow-duration curves for stations 09246200 and 09246400 were nearly identical, except for discharges less than about 10 cubic feet per second.

Specific conductance generally had an inverse relation to discharge in Elkhead Creek. During late fall and winter when discharge was small and derived mostly from ground water, specific conductance was high, whereas during spring and early summer, when discharge was large and derived mostly from snowmelt, specific conductance was low. Water temperatures in Elkhead Creek were smallest during winter, about 0.0 degrees Celsius (oC), and largest during summer, about 20–25oC.

Concentrations of major ions, nutrients, trace elements, organic carbon, and suspended sediment in Elkhead Creek indicated no substantial within-year variability and no substantial differences in variability from one year to the next. A seasonal pattern in the concentration data was evident for most constituents. The seasonal concentration pattern for most of the dissolved constituents followed the seasonal pattern of specific conductance, whereas some nutrients, some trace elements, and suspended sediment followed the seasonal pattern of discharge.

Statistical differences between station 09246200 (upstream from the reservoir) and station 09246400 (downstream from the reservoir) were indicated for specific conductance, dissolved calcium, magnesium, sodium, and sulfate, acid-neutralizing capacity, and dissolved solids. Trend analysis indicated upward temporal trends for pH, dissolved ammonia plus organic nitrogen, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus at station 09246200; upward temporal trends for dissolved and total ammonia plus organic nitrogen, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus were indicated at station 09246400. No downward trends were indicated for any constituents.

Annual loads for dissolved constituents during water years 1996–2001 were consistently larger at station 09246400 than at station 09246200, except for silica and sulfate. Mean monthly loads for dissolved constituents followed the seasonal pattern of discharge, indicating that most of the annual loads were transported during March–June. Annual dissolved nutrient loads at stations 09246400 and 09246200 were not substantially different, except for total phosphorus and total nitrogen loads, which were smaller at the downstream station than at the upstream station, most likely due to biological uptake and settling in the reservoir. Mean annual suspended-sediment load during water years 1996–2001 was about 87-percent smaller at the downstream station than at the upstream station.

Temperature in Elkhead Reservoir varied seasonally, from about 0oC during winter when ice develops on the reservoir to about 20oC during summer. Specific conductance varied from minimums of 138 to 169 microsiemens per centimeter at 25oC (µS/cm) during snowmelt inflow to maximums of 424 to 610 µS/cm during early spring low flow (April). Median pH in the reservoir ranged from 7.2 to 8.0 at all sites near the surface. Median dissolved oxygen ranged from 7.1 to 7.2 milligrams per liter (mg/L) in near-surface samples and from 4.8 to 5.6 mg/L in near-bottom samples.

During reservoir stratification, specific conductance generally was largest in the epilimnion, resulting from warm and relatively concentrated water from Elkhead Creek that was routed through the reservoir in the relatively warm epilimnion. The pH in the epilimnion generally increased from May to September, probably a result of algal productivity. In the hypolimnion, pH decreased slightly with depth in the July and September, probably a result of biomass decay processes and a lack of circulation during stratification.

Concentrations of nutrients in both near-surface and near-bottom samples from Elkhead Reservoir were highest during snowmelt inflow (April–May). Total phosphorus concentrations in near-surface samples generally were largest during runoff, whereas total phosphorus concentrations in near-bottom samples generally were largest during July or September. Concentrations of nitrite plus nitrate in near-surface samples were substantially depleted by biological uptake during July, September, and October, compared to near-bottom samples. Variations in concentration of chlorophyll-a in near-surface samples were large during the growing season with peak seasonal concentrations during runoff or late summer and fall. Trophic state for Elkhead reservoir ranged from oligotrophic to eutrophic.




Purpose and Scope

Description of Study Area

Previous Studies



Data Collection

Daily Discharge, Specific Conductance, and Water Temperature

Periodic Water-Quality Samples from Elkhead Creek

Periodic Water-Quality Samples at Elkhead Reservoir

Laboratory Analysis

Data Analysis

Statistical Testing and Load Computation

Reservoir Trophic State and Nutrient Limitation

Water-Quality Standards

Hydrology of Elkhead Creek

Daily Mean Discharge

Flow Duration

Instantaneous Peak Discharge and Bankfull Discharge

Trend Analysis of Annual Discharge

Water Quality of Elkhead Creek

Continuous Specific Conductance and Water Temperature

Temporal and Spatial Variability of Periodic Water-Quality Data

Field Measurements

Major Ions


Biological Indicators

Trace Elements

Suspended Sediment

Trend Analysis

Loads Analysis

Water Quality of Elkhead Reservoir

Depth-Profile Measurements

Stratification Patterns

Nutrients and Chlorophyll

Trophic State

Nutrient Limitation

Water-Quality Standards


References Cited

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Water Resources of Colorado

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