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Geologic sources and concentrations of selenium in the West-Central Denver Basin, including the Toll Gate Creek watershed, Aurora, Colorado, 2003-2007

April 16, 2014

Toll Gate Creek, in the west-central part of the Denver Basin, is a perennial stream in which concentrations of dissolved selenium have consistently exceeded the Colorado aquatic-life standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter. Recent studies of selenium in Toll Gate Creek identified the Denver lignite zone of the non-marine Cretaceous to Tertiary-aged (Paleocene) Denver Formation underlying the watershed as the geologic source of dissolved selenium to shallow ground-water and surface water. Previous work led to this study by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the City of Aurora Utilities Department, which investigated geologic sources of selenium and selenium concentrations in the watershed. This report documents the occurrence of selenium-bearing rocks and groundwater within the Cretaceous- to Tertiary-aged Denver Formation in the west-central part of the Denver Basin, including the Toll Gate Creek watershed. The report presents background information on geochemical processes controlling selenium concentrations in the aquatic environment and possible geologic sources of selenium; the hydrogeologic setting of the watershed; selenium results from groundwater-sampling programs; and chemical analyses of solids samples as evidence that weathering of the Denver Formation is a geologic source of selenium to groundwater and surface water in the west-central part of the Denver Basin, including Toll Gate Creek.

Analyses of water samples collected from 61 water-table wells in 2003 and from 19 water-table wells in 2007 indicate dissolved selenium concentrations in groundwater in the west-central Denver Basin frequently exceeded the Colorado aquatic-life standard and in some locations exceeded the primary drinking-water standard of 50 micrograms per liter. The greatest selenium concentrations were associated with oxidized groundwater samples from wells completed in bedrock materials. Selenium analysis of geologic core samples indicates that total selenium concentrations were greatest in samples containing indications of reducing conditions and organic matter (dark gray to black claystones and lignite horizons).

The Toll Gate Creek watershed is situated in a unique hydrogeologic setting in the west-central part of the Denver Basin such that weathering of Cretaceous- to Tertiary-aged, non-marine, selenium-bearing rocks releases selenium to groundwater and surface water under present-day semi-arid environmental conditions. The Denver Formation contains several known and suspected geologic sources of selenium including: (1) lignite deposits; (2) tonstein partings; (3) organic-rich bentonite claystones; (4) salts formed as secondary weathering products; and possibly (5) the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Organically complexed selenium and/or selenium-bearing pyrite in the enclosing claystones are likely the primary mineral sources of selenium in the Denver Formation, and correlations between concentration of dissolved selenium and dissolved organic carbon in groundwater indicate weathering and dissolution of organically complexed selenium from organic-rich claystone is a primary process mobilizing selenium. Secondary salts accumulated along fractures and bedding planes in the weathered zone are another potential geologic source of selenium, although their composition was not specifically addressed by the solids analyses. Results from this and previous work indicate that shallow groundwater and streams similarly positioned over Denver Formation claystone units at other locations in the Denver Basin also may contain concentrations of dissolved selenium greater than the Colorado aquatic-life standard or the drinking- water standard.