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Forecasting selenium discharges to the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary: Ecological effects of a proposed San Luis drain extension

January 1, 2000

During the next few years, federal and state agencies may be required to evaluate proposals and discharge permits that could significantly change selenium (Se) inputs to the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary (Bay-Delta), particularly in the North Bay (i.e., Suisun Bay and San Pablo Bay). These decisions may include discharge requirements for an extension of the San Luis Drain (SLD) to the estuary to convey subsurface agricultural drainage from the western San Joaquin Valley (SJV), a renewal of an agreement to allow the existing portion of the SLD to convey subsurface agricultural drainage to a tributary of the San Joaquin River (SJR) (coincident with changes in flow patterns of the lower SJR), and refinements to promulgated Se criteria for the protection of aquatic life for the estuary.

Understanding the biotransfer of Se is essential to evaluating the fate and impact of proposed changes in Se discharges to the Bay-Delta. However, past monitoring programs have not addressed the specific protocols necessary for an element that bioaccumulates. Confusion about Se threats in the past have stemmed from failure to consider the full complexity of the processes that result in Se toxicity. Past studies show that predators are more at risk from Se contamination than their prey, making it difficult to use traditional methods to predict risk from environmental concentrations alone. In this report, we employ a novel procedure to model the fate of Se under different, potentially realistic load scenarios from the SJV. For each potential load, we progressively forecast the resulting environmental concentrations, speciation, transformation to particulate form, bioaccumulation by invertebrates, trophic transfer to predators, and effects in those predators. Enough is known to establish a first order understanding of effects should Se be discharged directly into the North Bay via a conveyance such as the SLD.

Our approach uses 1) existing knowledge concerning the biogeochemical reactions of Se (e.g., speciation, partitioning between dissolved and particulate forms, and bivalve assimilation efficiency) and 2) site-specific data mainly from 1986 to 1996 on clams and bottom-feeding fish and birds. Forecasts of Se loading from oil refineries and agricultural drainage from the SJV enable the calculation of a composite freshwater endmember Se concentration at the head of the estuary and at Carquinez Strait as a foundation for modeling. Our analysis of effects also takes into account the mode of conveyance for agricultural drainage (i.e., the SLD or SJR). The effects of variable flows on a seasonal or monthly basis from the Sacramento River and SJR are also considered.

The results of our forecasts for external SJV watershed sources of Se mirror predictions made since 1955 of a worsening salt (and by inference, Se) buildup exacerbated by the arid climate and irrigation for agricultural use. We show that the reservoir of Se in the SJV is sufficient to provide loading at an annual rate of approximately 42,500 pounds (lbs) of Se to a Bay-Delta disposal point for 63 to 304 years at the lower range of our projections, even if influx of Se from the California Coast Ranges could be curtailed. Disposal of wastewaters on an annual basis outside of the SJV may slow the degradation of valley resources, but drainage alone cannot alleviate the salt and Se buildup in the SJV, at least within a century.

Our forecasts show the different proportions of Se loading to the Bay-Delta. Oil refinery loads from 1986 to 1992 ranged from 11 to 15 lbs Se per day; with treatment and cleanup, loads decreased to 3 lbs Se per day in 1999. In contrast, SJV agricultural drainage loads could range from of 45 to 117 lbs Se per day across a set of reasonable conditions. Components of this valley-wide load include five source subareas (i.e., Grassland, Westlands, Tulare, Kern, and Northern) based on water and drainage management. Loads vary per subarea mainly because of proximity of the s

Publication Year 2000
Title Forecasting selenium discharges to the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary: Ecological effects of a proposed San Luis drain extension
DOI 10.3133/ofr00416
Authors Samuel N. Luoma, Theresa S. Presser
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2000-416
Index ID ofr00416
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Toxic Substances Hydrology Program