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Selenium loading through the Blackfoot River watershed--linking sources to ecosystem

January 1, 2004

The upper Blackfoot River watershed in southeast Idaho receives drainage from 11 of 16 phosphate mines that have extracted ore from the Phosphoria Formation, three of which are presently active. Toxic effects from selenium (Se), including death of livestock and deformity in aquatic birds, were documented locally in areas where phosphatic shales are exposed (Piper et al., 2000; Presser et al., Chapter 11). Current drainage conditions are leading to Se bioaccumulation at concentrations that pose a risk to fish in the Blackfoot River and its tributaries (Hamilton et al., Chapter 18). A gaging station on the Blackfoot River was re-activated in April 2001 to assess hydrologic conditions and concentration, load, and speciation for Se discharges on a watershed scale. The gaging-station data are considered to represent regional drainage conditions in the upper Blackfoot River water- shed because of its location near the outlet of the watershed and directly upstream of the Blackfoot Reservoir.

Watershed discharges for 2001 and 2002 were below minimum hydrologic conditions for the gage as documented by the historical record. Drought emergencies were declared in the area in both 2001 and 2002. Unmonitored diversions for irrigation that routinely take place during the snowmelt season also affected conditions downstream. Annual cycles in Se concentration, load, and selenate (Se6+) reached maxima in the spring during the period of maximum flow at the gaging station. Thirty-seven to 44% of annual flow occurred dur- ing the three-month high-flow season (April through June) in 2001 and 56% of annual flow occurred during that time period in 2002. Extrapolation from historical hydrographs for average and wet years and a limited data set of regional Se concentrations for 2001 and 2002 indicated potential for a 3.6- to 7.4-fold increase in Se loading because of increased seasonal flows in the Blackfoot River watershed.

Supplementation data indicate that: (a) the difference between total Se and dissolved Se, as a measure of the contribution of particulate Se, was < 10% except at the peak of con- centration when total Se was 18% more than dissolved Se; (b) selenite (Se4+) represented less than 10% of the dissolved species during all months of 2001; and (c) dissolved Se was approximately a 50:50 mixture of selenate and organic selenide (operationally defined Se2-) during summer 2001 (June through August).

Ecological risk based on regional Se drainage occurred during both the high- and low-flow seasons. Seventy to 83% of the Se load occurred during the high-flow season. During early May of both years, dissolved-Se concentrations exceeded the criterion for the protection of aquatic life and the ecological threshold of 5 gL1 Se at which sub- stantive risk occurs. During the majority of the three-month high-flow season, dissolved- Se concentrations exceeded the 2 gL1 Se concern level for aquatic biota. The Se concentration in suspended material during high flow in 2002 was within the range of marginal risk to aquatic life (2-4 gg1Se, dry weight). Selenate was the major species during peak flows, with both selenate and organic selenide being major species during relatively low-flow periods in summer. A change in speciation to reduced Se may indicate elevated biotic productivity during summer months and could result in enhanced Se uptake in food webs.

In addition to the magnitude of regional Se release in the Blackfoot River watershed, Se concentrations in individual source drains and waste-rock seeps, and those predicted by experimental column leaching of proposed mining overburden materials, also indicate that drainage options that currently meet existing demands for phosphate mining cause eco- logical risk thresholds to be exceeded. At times, the drinking-water Se standard (50 g L1 Se) and the criterion for hazardous Se waste (1000 L-1 Se) (US Department of the Interior, 1998US Environmental Protection Agency, 1987) are also exceeded.

For water-years 2001 and 2002, seasonal increased input of water in the mining area resulted in increased Se transport, suggesting a mechanism of contamination that involves a significant Se reservoir. Hence, recognition and monitoring of Se loading to the envi- ronment on a mass balance basis (i.e. inputs, fluxes and storage within environmental media, and outputs) are essential to evaluating how to control Se concentrations within environmentally protective ranges (Presser and Piper, 1998). In areas where release of Se to aquatic systems is anticipated as a product of future expansion of phosphate mining, continuous monitoring of flow and development of seasonal Se loading patterns would help to model watersheds in terms of sources, flow periods, and environmental-Se con- centrations that most influence bioavailability. These data, in turn, could be linked to Se- bioaccumulation models specific to food webs and vulnerable species of the impacted areas to accurately project ecological effects. Gaging at this site on the Blackfoot River is planned to continue in order to establish a long-term (>10 year) record of hydrologic conditions.

Publication Year 2004
Title Selenium loading through the Blackfoot River watershed--linking sources to ecosystem
DOI 10.1016/S1874-2734(04)80018-4
Authors Theresa S. Presser, Matthew Hardy, Mark Huebner, Paul J. Lamothe
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70198695
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Western Branch; St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center; Contaminant Biology Program