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Biogeochemical and physical processes controlling mercury methylation and bioaccumulation in Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah and Arizona, 2014 and 2015

March 18, 2019

Mercury monitoring results from about 300 Morone saxatilis (striped bass) muscle tissue samples collected by the State of Utah from Lake Powell resulted in a Utah/Arizona fish consumption advisory issued in 2012 for approximately the lower 100 kilometers of the reservoir. Chemical, physical, and biological data were collected during two synoptic sampling cruises on Lake Powell during May/June 2014 and August 2015 to test three hypotheses associated with a conceptual model developed to explain the observed geographic concentration gradient of Hg in fish tissue samples. This model proposes that in the transition from a primarily riverine system to a reservoir, there is a change in the concentration and composition of water-column particulate material, increasing in the proportion of organic content moving downstream, as the larger size fractions of the inorganic particulate load are deposited in the upper reservoir. This change alleviates light limitation of phytoplankton production and leads to a higher proportion of autochthonous primary production in the downstream direction. This, in turn, drives increased microbial methylmercury (MeHg) production in the benthos and potentially the water column, in the downstream direction, and results in the observed elevated fish Hg levels in the lower part of the reservoir. The model also proposes that there are differences between the main stem of Lake Powell and side canyons, embayments, or secondary rivers entering the reservoir, in terms of Hg cycling dynamics and bioaccumulations, driven mainly by differences in hydrology. Finally, seasonal differences in Hg dynamics within the reservoir are proposed, based on seasonal dynamics associated with primary production and the physical process of seasonal stratification.

A total of three statistically testable hypotheses were proposed and postulated that measurable differences in key Hg and non-Hg metrics exist between: (1) the upper and lower reservoir; (2) main stem and river arm/side canyon/embayment sites; and (3) early-season (May/June 2014, less stratified) and late-season (August 2015, stratified) conditions. Statistically modeled least square means in combination with the graphical analysis of Hg and non-Hg parameters were used to examine the data collected during the study and test these hypotheses. Data collected during the study are included in a U.S. Geological Survey data release and are available online at

In general, water-column, plankton, and surface sediment samples collected during the synoptic sampling cruises are supportive of the three hypotheses associated with the conceptual model. In support of hypothesis 1 (comparing upper and lower reservoir sites), the least square mean for turbidity was higher in the upper reservoir. In contrast, surface water particulate organic carbon (as a percentage of total particulate mass), particulate MeHg (by mass [in nanograms per gram] and as a percentage of total mercury [THg]), and particulate-dissolved partitioning coefficients for THg and MeHg were higher in the lower reservoir. Plankton THg concentrations also were significantly (probability [p] less than (<) 0.05) higher in the lower reservoir. Surface sediment metrics in support of hypothesis 1 include higher MeHg production potential rates in the lower reservoir. In contrast, there were no statistically significant differences between the upper and lower reservoir for surface sediment percent of MeHg and MeHg concentration, percent MeHg, or methylation rate constants. These spatial trends associated with hypothesis 1 indicate a pathway for enhanced Hg bioavailability in the lower reservoir.

Hypothesis 2, which tested for differences between main stem and river arm/side canyon/embayment sites, was supported by a number of water-column parameters, including particulate THg and MeHg concentrations by mass (in nanograms per gram) and percent particulate MeHg being significantly (p<0.05) higher in the river arms, side canyons, and embayments relative to the main stem channel. Plankton MeHg concentrations (by mass [in nanograms per gram] and volume [in nanograms per liter] and as a percentage of THg) were elevated in river arm/side canyon/embayment sites compared to main stem sites, indicating an enhanced potential for MeHg bioaccumulation at the base of the pelagic food web in river arms, side canyons, and embayments. In contrast, few of the sediment metrics differed between main stem and river arm/side canyon/embayment sampling sites; however, the potential for MeHg degradation in surface sediment was significantly higher in the main stem. The data indicate that river arm/side canyon/embayment sites may experience enhanced Hg bioaccumulation, compared to the main stem, because of higher MeHg levels at the base of the pelagic food web. This conclusion is supported by the elevated Hg detected in striped bass muscle tissue samples collected in the San Juan Arm during this study (2014). Fish collected from the lower reservoir exhibited a distinct Hg isotopic signature that was enriched in delta (δ)202Hg and capital delta (Δ)199Hg relative to fish samples collected from either Good Hope Bay or the San Juan Arm.

Hypothesis 3 tested for differences between early (May/June) high-flow and late (August) low-flow seasons. This test was supported by a range of non-Hg metrics (nitrate, phosphate, chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen, fluorescent dissolved organic matter, temperature, and pH) that reflect the increase in chlorophyll a, decrease in nutrients, and buildup of stratified conditions in the transition from early- to late-season sampling periods. Significant seasonal differences also were noted for multiple Hg metrics, including (a) water-column filtered and particulate (by mass) MeHg and THg concentrations; (b) plankton MeHg and THg concentration (by mass); and (c) sediment percent MeHg, Hg(II)-methylation rate constant, and microbial ribosomal ribonucleic acid, small subunit 16 (16S rRNA) abundance, all of which were higher during the late-season synoptic sampling. Overall, the surface sediment metrics are consistent with a seasonal shift from the early-season synoptic results, when the availability of Hg(II) exerts a primary control on MeHg production, to the late-season synoptic sampling, when microbial activity is a dominant driver of MeHg production.

Publication Year 2019
Title Biogeochemical and physical processes controlling mercury methylation and bioaccumulation in Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah and Arizona, 2014 and 2015
DOI 10.3133/ofr20181159
Authors David L. Naftz, Mark Marvin-DiPasquale, David P. Krabbenhoft, George Aiken, Eric S. Boyd, Christopher H. Conaway, Jacob M. Ogorek, Gregory M. Anderson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2018-1159
Index ID ofr20181159
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Research Program - Western Branch; Wisconsin Water Science Center; WY-MT Water Science Center; Upper Midwest Water Science Center