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Effects of an extreme flood on trace elements in river water—From urban stream to major river basin

September 5, 2017

Major floods adversely affect water quality through surface runoff, groundwater discharge, and damage to municipal water infrastructure. Despite their importance, it can be difficult to assess the effects of floods on streamwater chemistry because of challenges collecting samples and the absence of baseline data. This study documents water quality during the September 2013 extreme flood in the South Platte River, Colorado, USA. Weekly time-series water samples were collected from 3 urban source waters (municipal tap water, streamwater, and wastewater treatment facility effluent) under normal-flow and flood conditions. In addition, water samples were collected during the flood at 5 locations along the South Platte River and from 7 tributaries along the Colorado Front Range. Samples were analyzed for 54 major and trace elements. Specific chemical tracers, representing different natural and anthropogenic sources and geochemical behaviors, were used to compare streamwater composition before and during the flood. The results differentiate hydrological processes that affected water quality: (1) in the upper watershed, runoff diluted most dissolved constituents, (2) in the urban corridor and lower watershed, runoff mobilized soluble constituents accumulated on the landscape and contributed to stream loading, and (3) flood-induced groundwater discharge mobilized soluble constituents stored in the vadose zone.

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