USGS - Science for a Changing World

Water-Resources Investigations Report 03-4283

Trace Elements and Organic Compounds in Sediment and Fish Tissue from the Great Salt Lake Basins, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, 1998-99


By K.M. Waddell and E.M. Giddings


A study to determine the occurrence and distribution of trace elements, organochlorine pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and semivolatile organic compounds in sediment and in fish tissue was conducted in the Great Salt Lake Basins study unit of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program during 1998-99. Streambed-sediment and fish-tissue samples were collected concurrently at 11 sites and analyzed for trace-element concentration. An additional four sites were sampled for streambed sediment only and one site for fish tissue only. Organic compounds were analyzed from streambed-sediment and fish-tissue samples at 15 sites concurrently.

Bed-sediment cores from lakes, reservoirs, and Farmington Bay collected by the NAWQA program in 1998 and by other researchers in 1982 were used to examine historical trends in trace-element concentration and to determine anthropogenic sources of contaminants. Cores collected in 1982 from Mirror Lake, a high-mountain reference location, showed an enrichment of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, tin, and zinc in the surface sediments relative to the deeper sediments, indicating that enrichment likely began after about 1900. This enrichment was attributed to atmospheric deposition during the period of metal-ore mining and smelting. A core from Echo Reservoir, in the Weber River Basin, however, showed a different pattern of trace-element concentration that was attributed to a local source. This site is located downstream from the Park City mining district, which is the most likely historical source of trace elements. Cores collected in 1998 from Farmington Bay show that the concentration of lead began to increase after 1842 and peaked during the mid-1980s and has been in decline since. Recent sediments deposited during 1996-98 indicate a 41- to 62-percent reduction since the peak in the mid-1980s.

The concentration of trace elements in streambed sediment was greatest at sites that have been affected by historic mining, including sites on Little Cottonwood Creek in the Jordan River basin, Silver Creek in the Weber River basin, and the Weber River below the confluence with Silver Creek. There was significant correlation of lead concentrations in streambed sediment and fish tissue, but other trace elements did not correlate well. Streambed sediment and fish tissue collected from sites in the Bear River basin, which is predominantly rangeland and agriculture, generally had low concentrations of most elements.

Sediment-quality guidelines were used to assess the relative toxicity of streambed-sediment sites to aquatic communities. Sites affected by mining exceeded the Probable Effect Concentration (PEC), the concentration at which it is likely there will be a negative effect on the aquatic community, for arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, silver, mercury, and zinc. Sites that were not affected by mining did not exceed these criteria. Concentrations of trace elements in samples collected from the Great Salt Lake Basins study unit (GRSL) are high compared to those of samples collected nationally with the NAWQA program. Nine of 15 streambed-sediment samples and 11 of 14 fish-tissue samples had concentrations of at least one trace element greater than the concentration of 90 percent of the samples collected nationally during 1993-2000.

Organic compounds that were examined in streambed sediment and fish-tissue samples also were examined in bed-sediment cores. A bed-sediment core from Farmington Bay of Great Salt Lake showed an increase in total polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) concentrations coincident with the increase in population in Salt Lake Valley, which drains into this bay. Analysis of streambed-sediment samples showed that the highest concentrations of PAHs were detected at urban sites, including two sites in the lower Jordan River (the Jordan River flows into Farmington Bay), the Weber River at Ogden Bay, and the Provo River near Provo. Other organic compounds detected in streambed sediment in the lower Jordan River were PCBs, DDT compounds, and chlordane compounds.

Organic compounds were detected more frequently in fish tissue than in streambed sediment. Chlordane compounds and PCBs were detected more frequently at urban sites. DDT compounds were detected at 13 of 15 sites including urban and agricultural sites. Concentrations of total DDT in fish tissue exceeded the guideline for protection of fish-eating wildlife at two urban sites. The concentration of organic compounds in the GRSL study unit is low compared with that of samples collected nationally.


This report is contained in the following file:

WRI034283.pdf (1.7 mb)

Send questions or comments about this report to Anne Brasher ( 801.908.5027.

For more information about USGS activities in Utah, visit the USGS Utah District home page.

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