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Selenium hazards in the Salton Sea environment—Summary of current knowledge to inform future wetland management

July 20, 2023

Quaternary marine and continental shales in the western United States are sources of selenium that can be loaded into the aquatic environment through mining, agricultural, and energy production processes. The mobilization of selenium from shales through agricultural irrigation has been recognized since the 1930s; however, discovery of deformities in birds and other wildlife using agricultural habitats during the 1980s spurred studies to determine the extent and effects of the contamination. Through these early studies, researchers determined that biota in the Salton Sea drainage basin was at risk from legacy selenium contamination in the Colorado River watershed.

The Salton Sea and its surrounding managed and unmanaged wetlands provide vital inland habitat and trophic support for diverse assemblages of resident and migratory wildlife, and understanding regional selenium hazards for these trust species is a priority for many Federal and State agencies. The modern Salton Sea is a shallow, landlocked saline lake in Riverside and Imperial Counties (not shown) of California that is sustained by irrigation return and perennial river inflow. Changes in water transfer agreements under the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) have resulted in reduced irrigation flow, declining lake levels, and the evolution of unmanaged wetlands in areas where drains and rivers no longer reach the Salton Sea. These wetlands provide additional habitat for some species of concern, but their potential to increase selenium hazards for trust species is largely unknown.

From the 1980s to 2020, efforts to document selenium contamination and effects throughout the region have resulted in a considerable amount of selenium data from the Salton Sea and its surrounding drainage basin; however, no long-term (greater than 20 years), consistent sampling program has been established, and all data have been collected by different entities using a variety of protocols and analytical techniques. This lack of coordination has been previously documented in regional management plans and has led to difficulty in reliably assessing selenium hazards in the Salton Sea environment. This report provides a summary of the available disparate selenium information collected from water, sediment, and biota in the Salton Sea region since the 1980s and to identify data gaps that need to be filled to understand the potential effects of selenium on species of concern, including federally endangered desert pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius) and Yuma Ridgway’s Rail (Rallus obsoletus yumanensis; formerly Yuma Clapper Rail, Rallus longirostris yumanensis).

Available data from the Salton Sea drainage basin show that water from the Colorado River has the lowest selenium concentration of all surface water sources. All other surface water flowing into the Salton Sea has elevated selenium concentrations due to evaporation and evapotranspiration that occurs in agricultural fields and associated water delivery infrastructure or leaching of selenium from irrigated farmland soils. The Salton Sea has lower selenium concentrations because of various biogeochemical processes that recycle selenium into the sediment or volatilize it to the atmosphere; however, these mechanisms are not well defined, and it is not clear if selenium cycling will change in response to possible changes in the oxidation state of the Salton Sea bottom waters as water levels decline. Agricultural drains have the highest average selenium concentrations, but few drains have been sampled since changes in irrigation practices have occurred (due to the 2003 QSA). Groundwater selenium concentrations are variable; some wells south of the Salton Sea have selenium concentrations as high as 300 micrograms per liter (µg/L), whereas selenium concentrations are below detection in other wells. Groundwater and surface-water geothermal discharge zones around the margins of the Salton Sea and in unmanaged wetlands have not been studied in detail, and published selenium measurements are not available for these surface features.

Selenium concentrations in the sediment of the Salton Sea drainage basin are highest in wetland particulate organic matter and the Salton Sea lakebed, indicating that removal of selenium from the water to the sediment has been a primary mechanism for keeping selenium concentrations low in the water column. Sediment selenium concentrations in wetlands are lower than in the Salton Sea but higher than inflowing drains and rivers, indicating the lentic wetland sites also may be important sinks for selenium because of biogeochemical processes. Sediment selenium data have not been collected in agricultural drains since changes in irrigation practices occurred (due to the 2003 QSA), and it is unknown if selenium sequestration from the water column has changed in these systems.

We divided biological data into broad taxonomic categories, including primary producers, invertebrates, herpetofauna, mammals, fishes, and birds to facilitate evaluation of selenium concentrations and spatiotemporal trends observed in the Salton Sea. Overall, selenium concentrations were substantially greater in algae samples compared to all vascular plant samples combined. Median selenium concentrations in several invertebrate taxa (Chironomidae, Formicidae, Corixidae, Corbiculidae and Nereididae, and Decapoda) exceeded the maximum suggested dietary threshold of 3.0–4.0 micrograms per gram (µg/g) dry weight (dw) for predators consuming invertebrates in aquatic food webs. The greatest number of samples were collected from fish, and selenium distributions among species and locations showed that the range for most samples was lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency selenium criterion for aquatic life (8.5 µg/g dw whole body, 11.3 µg/g dw fillets). The median selenium concentrations for whole body fish were below the selenium criterion in most locations, except for bairdiella (Bairdiella icistia) from the Salton Sea and irrigation drains, a few individual tilapia spp. (family Cichlidae, including genera Tilapia, Oreochromis, and their hybrids) from the river and river outlets, and several western mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) and sailfin molly (Poecilia latipinna) from irrigation drain outlets. For avian samples combined among years and locations, median selenium concentrations in livers from all families except waders and Ibis (family Threskiornithidae) were higher than levels expected to cause selenium toxicosis (10–20 µg/g dw), and all median egg concentrations were above or near 6.0 μg/g dw, which is a conservative threshold value for reproductive impairment.

Most knowledge gaps we identified for water, sediment, and biota were interrelated, and the use of integrated approaches to address knowledge gaps can provide greater insight into the drivers behind selenium hazards. Integrated water, sediment, and biota studies could help identify cost-effective management solutions that serve multiple purposes. A comprehensive analysis of the hydrology, biogeochemistry, and food-web processes in wetlands and other habitats can inform predictive models to identify drivers of selenium bioavailability, uptake from the environment and subsequent trophic transfer, ultimately forming the basis for experimental habitat management manipulations to minimize selenium hazards to wildlife. Furthermore, a comprehensive, long-term sampling and analytical laboratory plan would enable comparison of data among different entities that are sampling at the Salton Sea. Such efforts are well suited to help fill knowledge gaps that preclude understanding of selenium hazards and future management options for biota using Salton Sea habitats, including newly formed wetlands throughout the region.

All data compiled for this report are available in two U.S. Geological Survey data releases: Groover and others (2022) for water and sediment samples and De La Cruz and others (2022) for biological samples. The data releases include all publicly available data for selenium concentrations in water, sediment, and biological samples collected in and around the Salton Sea, including the Coachella and Imperial Valleys. The data releases also include previously unpublished data.

Publication Year 2023
Title Selenium hazards in the Salton Sea environment—Summary of current knowledge to inform future wetland management
DOI 10.3133/sir20235042
Authors Michael R. Rosen, Susan E.W. De La Cruz, Krishangi D. Groover, Isa Woo, Sarah A. Roberts, Melanie J. Davis, Cristiana Y. Antonino
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2023-5042
Index ID sir20235042
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center; Western Ecological Research Center