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Coeur d'Alene Lake, Idaho: Insights gained From limnological studies of 1991-92 and 2004-06

September 27, 2008

More than 100 years of mining and processing of metal-rich ores in northern Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene River basin have resulted in widespread metal contamination of the basin’s soil, sediment, water, and biota, including Coeur d’Alene Lake. Previous studies reported that about 85 percent of the bottom of Coeur d’Alene Lake is substantially enriched in antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, silver, and zinc. Nutrients in the lake also are a major concern because they can change the lake’s trophic status—or level of biological productivity—which could result in secondary releases of metals from contaminated lakebed sediments. This report presents insights into the limnological functioning of Coeur d’Alene Lake based on information gathered during two large-scale limnological studies conducted during calendar years 1991–92 and water years 2004–06.

Both limnological studies reported that longitudinal gradients exist from north to south for decreasing water column transparency, loss of dissolved oxygen, and increasing total phosphorus concentrations. Gradients also exist for total lead, total zinc, and hypolimnetic dissolved oxygen concentrations, ranging from high concentrations in the central part of the lake to lower concentrations at the northern and southern ends of the lake. In the southern end of the lake, seasonal anoxia serves as a mechanism to release dissolved constituents such as phosphorus, nitrogen, iron, and manganese from lakebed sediments and from detrital material within the water column.

Nonparametric statistical hypothesis tests at a significance level of α=0.05 were used to compare analyte concentrations among stations, between lake zones, and between study periods. The highest dissolved oxygen concentrations were measured in winter in association with minimum water temperatures, and the lowest concentrations were measured in the Coeur d’Alene Lake hypolimnion during late summer or autumn as prolonged thermal stratification restricted mixing of the oxygenated upper water column and the hypolimnion, where oxygen was consumed. Large differences in median concentrations of dissolved inorganic nitrogen were measured between the euphotic zone and hypolimnion in the deep areas of the lake. These differences in nitrogen concentrations were attributable to several limnological processes, including seasonal inflow plume routing, isolation from wind-driven circulation and associated hypolimnetic enrichment, phytoplanktonic assimilation during summer months, and benthic flux.

Increased chlorophyll-a and total phosphorus concentrations were measured throughout the lake in the 2004–06 study compared with results from the 1991–92 study. No significant change in hypolimnetic dissolved inorganic nitrogen concentration throughout the lake was noted even though total nitrogen loads into the lake decreased between study periods. Total zinc and total lead decreased throughout the lake from the 1991-92 study to the 2004-06 study except in the southern part of the lake, where concentrations were typically low. Median detected nitrogen-to-phosphorus ratios decreased from the 1991–92 study to the 2004–06 study. Whereas the lake was clearly phosphorus-limited in 1991–92, in 2004–06 the lake may have been much closer to the boundary value of 7.2 that separates nitrogen from phosphorus limitation. However, due to changes in analytical reporting limits in the period between the two studies, the data are insufficiently certain to draw reliable conclusions with regard to limiting nutrients. For both studies, the trophic state of the lake was classified as oligotrophic (less productive) or mesotrophic (moderately productive), depending on the constituent used for classification.

Internal circulation from wind-generated waves and changes in the lake’s thermocline are important processes for distribution of water-quality constituents throughout Coeur d’Alene Lake. Surficial distribution of trace metals throughout most of the lake, including bays, is relatively uniform. Even south of the Coeur d’Alene River mouth, lakebed sediments are contaminated with trace metals. Inflow plume routing of the two primary inflow sources, the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe Rivers, also significantly affects the fate and transport of contaminants. Most riverine inflows appear to move through the lake as overflow during summer, interflow during spring and autumn, and underflow during winter.

Benthic flux is another key transport process for contaminants in Coeur d’Alene Lake. The results of in situ benthic flux chamber experiments indicated movement of dissolved metals, nutrients, and dissolved organic carbon out of the lakebed sediments. However, the lake is an overall sink for these constituents when they are associated with particulate material.

Publication Year 2008
Title Coeur d'Alene Lake, Idaho: Insights gained From limnological studies of 1991-92 and 2004-06
DOI 10.3133/sir20085168
Authors Molly S. Wood, Michael A. Beckwith
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2008-5168
Index ID sir20085168
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Idaho Water Science Center