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Long-term mercury loading and trapping dynamics in a Western North America reservoir

December 2, 2023

Study Region

The Carson River including Lahontan Reservoir in Northwestern Nevada, USA

Study Focus

The discovery, mining, and processing of silver and gold from the Comstock Lode in northwestern Nevada heavily contaminated the Carson River system with mercury (Hg). The river now contains some of the highest recorded water column and bed sediment Hg concentrations reported in peer-reviewed literature. Acute Hg contamination in river and reservoir bed sediment has led to elevated methylmercury (MeHg) concentrations across all trophic levels of Lahontan Reservoir, culminating in significant health risks to humans. Lahontan Reservoir, located downstream from the mills that processed Comstock ore, has served as a Hg trap since the completion of the dam in 1915. Starting in 1997 and extending through 2021, the U.S. Geological Survey has collected and analyzed hundreds of discrete water samples entering and exiting Lahontan Reservoir for unfiltered total Hg (uf.THg), thereby providing a first-of-its-kind opportunity for studying long-term Hg trapping efficiencies within a western North American reservoir. Continuous time series of uf.THg concentration and flux above and below the reservoir were estimated using the weighted regressions on time, discharge, and season with the Kalman filtering (WRTDS-K) method employed with newly developed methods to account for non-natural (i.e., managed) hydrographs below a reservoir.

New hydrological insights for the region

An estimated 31,650 kg (34.89 US tons) of uf.THg entered Lahontan Reservoir during the 25 year period of analysis, accounting for approximately 0.5% of the total uf.THg estimated to have been released to the Carson River system [6.8 million kg (7500 US tons)] over a multi-decade mining boom. Moreover, approximately 92% of the estimated uf.THg entering Lahontan Reservoir was trapped. On an annual basis, however, trapping efficiencies range between 34% and 98%, and are closely related to the total annual discharge. Results also indicate that flow-normalized uf.THg concentrations and loads above and below the reservoir are trending down.

Publication Year 2023
Title Long-term mercury loading and trapping dynamics in a Western North America reservoir
DOI 10.1016/j.ejrh.2023.101566
Authors Eric D. Morway, Robert M. Hirsch, Angela Paul, Mark C. Marvin-DiPasquale, Carl E Thodal
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies
Index ID 70250427
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nevada Water Science Center