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The occurrence and distribution of selected trace elements in the upper Rio Grande and tributaries in Colorado and Northern New Mexico

January 1, 2001

Two sampling trips were undertaken in 1994 to determine the distribution of trace elements in the Upper Rio Grande and several of its tributaries. Water discharges decreased in the main stem of the Rio Grande from June to September, whereas dissolved concentrations of trace elements generally increased. This is attributed to dilution of base flow from snowmelt runoff in the June samples. Of the three major mining districts (Creede, Summitville, and Red River) in the Upper Rio Grande drainage basin, only the Creede District appears to impact the Rio Grande in a significant manner, with both waters and sediments having elevated concentrations of some trace elements considerably downriver. For example, dissolved zinc concentrations upriver of Willow Creek, which primarily drains the Creede District, were about 2-3 μg/L; immediately downstream of the Willow Creek confluence, concentrations were above 20 μg/L; and elevated concentrations occurred in the Rio Grande for the next 100 km. The Red River District does not significantly impact the Upper Rio Grande for most trace elements. Because of current water management practices, it is difficult to assess the impact of the Summitville District on the Upper Rio Grande. There are, however, large increases in many dissolved trace element concentrations as the Rio Grande passes through the San Luis Valley, coincident with elevated concentrations of those same trace elements in tributaries. Among these elements are As, B, Cr, Li, Mn, Mo, Ni, Sr, U, and V. None of the trace elements exceeded U.S. EPA primary drinking water standards in either survey, with the exception of cadmium in Willow Creek. Secondary drinking water standards were frequently violated, especially in tributaries draining areas where mining has occurred. Dissolved zinc (in Willow Creek in both June and September) was the only element that exceeded the EPA Water Quality Criteria for aquatic life of 120 μg/L.

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