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Evaluation of trends in pH in the Yampa River, northwestern Colorado, 1950-2000

January 1, 1994

In 1999, the U.S. Geological Survey began a study of pH trends in the Yampa River from near its headwaters to its mouth. The study was prompted by an apparent historical increase in measured pH at the Yampa River near Maybell, from an average of about 7.6 in the 1950's and 1960's to about 8.3 in the 1980's and 1990's. If real, further increase could cause more frequent exceedances of the Colorado water-quality standard of 9.0 and adversely affect aquatic life in the Yampa River Basin, including Dinosaur National Monument. The principal conclusion of this study is that this apparent historical increase in measured pH was caused mostly by changes in measurement protocol.

Synoptic sampling during August 16-19, 1999, a period of relatively warm weather and base flow, showed that late afternoon pH of the Yampa River ranged from 8.46 to 9.20. The largest pH (9.20) exceeded the Colorado water-quality standard and was measured at Yampa River above Elk River, about 1.8 miles downstream from the Steamboat Springs Regional Waste Water Treatment Plant outfall, where nutrient enrichment caused photosynthesis by algae to dominate. Here, the dissolved oxygen concentration was 161 percent of saturation and carbon dioxide (CO2 was at 26 percent of saturation. At Yampa River downstream from a diversion near Hayden, 16.3 miles downstream, the effects of photosynthesis were still dominant, though attenuated by reaeration and dilution with freshwater from the Elk River. About 37.2 miles farther downstream, at Yampa River below Craig, which is about 6.2 miles downstream from the Craig Waste Water Treatment Plant, the effects of photosynthesis increased slightly, and pH rose to 8.80. Respiration plus oxidation of organic matter became dominant at Yampa River at Deerlodge Park in Dinosaur National Monument, where pH was 8.51, dissolved oxygen concentration was at 109 percent of saturation, and CO2 was at 189 percent of saturation. Respiration plus oxidation of organic matter, though diminished, apparently extended to the mouth of the Yampa River.

Diurnal measurements on the Yampa River during August 23-26, 1999, show that the effects of photosynthesis and respiration plus oxidation of organic matter decreased downstream with distance from the developed urban area in the eastern part of the basin. Larger night-time values of pH in Dinosaur National Monument at Deerlodge Park and at the mouth of the Yampa River indicate that source waters varied with respect to capacity for respiration plus oxidation and photo-synthesis, that photosynthesis was minor, and that pH was largely controlled by respiration plus oxidation of organic matter.

Synoptic sampling was repeated during March 13-16, 2000, when discharge was larger in response to late-winter melting of snow and ice at lower altitudes in the basin. Concentrations of nitrite plus nitrate were about 9 times greater in the Yampa River during March 2000 than during August 1999, and the largest increase (greater than 1,200 percent) was at Yampa River below Craig. At and downstream from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, pH at Yampa River sites averaged 8.85 during synoptic sampling in March 2000 compared to 8.70 in August 1999, with the partial pressure of carbon dioxide gas (PCO2) averaging 67 percent of saturation (compared to 99 percent during August 1999). The apparently larger effects of photosynthesis on pH and dissolved oxygen concentrations during March 2000 compared to August 1999 probably were caused by (1) slower rates of exchange of CO2 into and dissolved oxygen out of the river because of colder and deeper water and (2) slower rates of CO2 production and oxygen consumption resulting from slower rates of respiration by organisms and from slower rates of aerobic decomposition of organic matter in the colder river water and streambed sediment.

Hypothetical thermodynamic simulations were done for samples collected in the lower Yampa River Basin to simulate the same amount of photosynthesis th

Citation Information

Publication Year 2002
Title Evaluation of trends in pH in the Yampa River, northwestern Colorado, 1950-2000
DOI 10.3133/wri024038
Authors Daniel T. Chafin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series Number 2002-4038
Index ID wri024038
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse