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Occurrence and transport of total mercury and methyl mercury in the Sacramento River Basin, California

January 1, 1999

Mercury poses a water-quality problem for California's Sacramento River, a large river with a mean annual discharge of over 650 m3/s. This river discharges into the San Francisco Bay, and numerous fish species of the bay and river contain mercury levels high enough to affect human health if consumed. Two possible sources of mercury are the mercury mines in the Coast Ranges and the gold mines in the Sierra Nevada. Mercury was once mined in the Coast Ranges, west of the Sacramento River, and used to process gold in the Sierra Nevada, east of the river. The mineralogy of the Coast Ranges mercury deposits is mainly cinnabar (HgS), but elemental mercury was used to process gold in the Sierra Nevada. Residual mercury from mineral processing in the Sierra Nevada is mainly in elemental form or in association with oxide particles or organic matter and is biologically available. Recent bed-sediment sampling, at sites below large reservoirs, showed elevated levels of total mercury (median concentration 0.28 ??g/g) in every large river (the Feather, Yuba, Bear, and American rivers) draining the Sierra Nevada gold region. Monthly sampling for mercury in unfiltered water shows relatively low concentrations during the nonrainy season in samples collected throughout the Sacramento River Basin, but significantly higher concentrations following storm-water runoff. Measured concentrations, following storm-water runoff, frequently exceeded the state of California standards for the protection of aquatic life. Results from the first year of a 2-year program of sampling for methyl mercury in unfiltered water showed similar median concentrations (0.1 ng/l) at all sampling locations, but with apparent high seasonal concentrations measured during autumn and winter. Methyl mercury concentrations were not significantly higher in rice field runoff water, even though rice production involves the creation of seasonal wetlands: higher rates of methylation are known to occur in stagnant wetland environments that have high dissolved carbon.Mercury poses a water-quality problem for California's Sacramento River, a large river with a mean annual discharge of over 650 m3/s. This river discharges into the San Francisco Bay, and numerous fish species of the bay and river contain mercury levels high enough to affect human health if consumed. Two possible sources of mercury are the mercury mines in the Coast Ranges and the gold mines in the Sierra Nevada. Mercury was once mined in the Coast Ranges, west of the Sacramento River, and used to process gold in the Sierra Nevada east of the river. The mineralogy of the Coast Ranges mercury deposits is mainly cinnabar (HgS), but elemental mercury was used to process gold in the Sierra Nevada. Residual mercury from mineral processing in the Sierra Nevada is mainly in elemental form or in association with oxide particles or organic matter and is biologically available. Recent bed-sediment sampling, at sites below large reservoirs, showed elevated levels of total mercury (median concentration 0.28 ??g/g) in every large river (the Feather, Yuba, Bear, and American rivers) draining the Sierra Nevada gold region. Monthly sampling for mercury in unfiltered water shows relatively low concentrations during the nonrainy season in samples collected throughout the Sacramento River Basin, but significantly higher concentrations following storm-water runoff. Measured concentrations, following storm-water runoff, frequently exceeded the state of California standards for the protection of aquatic life. Results from the first year of a 2-year program of sampling for methyl mercury in unfiltered water showed similar median concentrations (0.1 ng/l) at all sampling locations, but with apparent high seasonal concentrations measured during autumn and winter. Methyl mercury concentrations were not significantly higher in rice field runoff water, even though rice production involves the creation of seasonal wetlands: higher rates of methylation a

Citation Information

Publication Year 1999
Title Occurrence and transport of total mercury and methyl mercury in the Sacramento River Basin, California
DOI 10.1016/S0375-6742(98)00038-7
Authors Joseph L. Domagalski
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Geochemical Exploration
Series Number
Index ID 70022005
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center

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