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Groundwater contributions to excessive algal growth in the East Fork Carson River, Carson Valley, west-central Nevada, 2010 and 2012

September 28, 2018

Excessive algal growth and low dissolved oxygen concentrations were observed during low streamflow conditions during summer months along a 5,800-foot reach of the East Fork Carson River in Carson Valley, west-central Nevada. Algal growth from nutrient enrichment of a stream reduces aquatic diversity, threatens fish ecology and stream health, and can be a recreational nuisance. In response to concerns that groundwater discharging to the 5,800-foot reach of the East Fork Carson River may be a source of nutrients to the stream, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Carson Water Subconservancy District and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, conducted studies during the summers of 2010 and 2012 to gain an improved understanding of the contributions of nutrients to the stream from groundwater, characterize algal conditions and algal effects on water quality, assess potential sources of nitrate in groundwater discharging to the stream, and evaluate nitrate reduction in groundwater from denitrification.

A reconnaissance study in the summer of 2010 along the 5,800-foot study reach located a subreach with clear evidence of nutrient-rich groundwater discharging to the stream. At the subreach, nitrate plus nitrite (referred to hereafter as nitrate) concentrations in groundwater discharging to the stream were high (average 2.75 milligrams per liter as nitrogen) along the right bank. The stream at this location had the highest stream nitrate concentrations (average 0.056 milligrams per liter as nitrogen) compared to other locations upstream and downstream of the subreach. As a result, the 2012 study focused on a 405-foot subreach of the East Fork Carson River centered where results from the 2010 study found the highest stream and groundwater concentrations of nitrate, as well as the greatest observed contributions of groundwater discharge to the stream.

Groundwater nutrient concentrations were much higher than stream nutrient concentrations during the summer of 2012 during low streamflow conditions at the 405-foot subreach of the East Fork Carson River. Average groundwater nitrate and orthophosphate concentrations along the right bank of the 405‑foot subreach were 9 and 12 times higher, respectively, than in the stream at this subreach. Groundwater discharge rates to the study reach based on different methods varied from 0.09 to 1.2 cubic feet per second per mile. Estimated groundwater discharge rates to the right bank of the study subreach were used to calculate groundwater nutrient load estimates to the subreach right bank, which were found to be low when compared to stream nutrient loads.

Elevated algal biomass levels above nuisance thresholds were observed during the summers of 2010 and 2012. The study reach was characterized as mesotrophic-eutrophic during the 2010 study and eutrophic during the 2012 study. The presence of algae caused daily dissolved oxygen and pH fluctuations in the stream, resulting in exceedances of the State of Nevada water-quality standards owing to low dissolved oxygen concentrations and high pH concentrations, although the standards might not have been applicable during 2012 because of extremely low streamflow.

The addition of nutrients to the stream from the constant supply in groundwater discharge sustains the growth of algae during low streamflow conditions. In the summer when streamflow is low or very low, nutrient-rich groundwater discharge enters the stream through the sediment-water interface at the streambed. Because the attached algae is thick and stream velocity is low, the nutrient-rich water pools at the sediment-water interface. Higher nutrient concentrations at the streambed create a favorable microenvironment for algae attached to the substrate to consume available nutrients from the groundwater before the groundwater mixes with overlying stream water.

The source of nitrate in groundwater in this subreach is anthropogenic because nitrate concentrations are greater than background groundwater nitrate concentrations in Douglas County, high groundwater nitrate concentrations are only found at the right bank of the stream near a housing development, and organic wastewater compounds indicative of human-derived sources were also detected in groundwater wells on the right bank of the stream. Nitrogen and oxygen isotope concentrations of nitrate in shallow groundwater were used to determine the specific source of the nitrate, but the isotopic values indicated denitrification was occurring. Further investigation is needed to determine the specific anthropogenic source of the nitrate in the groundwater because the denitrification present in all samples obscures the original source of nitrogen.

Publication Year 2018
Title Groundwater contributions to excessive algal growth in the East Fork Carson River, Carson Valley, west-central Nevada, 2010 and 2012
DOI 10.3133/sir20185102
Authors Nancy L. Alvarez, Randy A. Pahl, Michael R. Rosen
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5102
Index ID sir20185102
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nevada Water Science Center