Selenium in aquatic ecosystems of the lower Gunnison River Basin in Colorado is affecting the recovery of populations of endangered, native fish species. Dietary exposure is the primary pathway for bioaccumulation of selenium in fish, and particulate selenium can be consumed directly by fish or by the invertebrates on which fish feed. Although selenium can be incorporated into particulate matter via biogeochemical processes, particulate selenium can also enter aquatic ecosystems of the lower Gunnison River Basin from sediments derived from the selenium-rich Mancos Shale. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, conducted this study during 2018–19 to identify sources of selenium-rich suspended sediments from two watersheds underlain by Mancos Shale: Loutsenhizer Arroyo and Sunflower Drain, which is a locally known agricultural drainage near the municipality of Delta, Colorado.
A multipronged approach (fieldwork, laboratory work, and computer modeling) referred to as “sediment fingerprinting” was used to evaluate sources of suspended sediments in the streams flowing out of the two studied watersheds. Four potential source types for suspended sediments were identified and sampled (using soil plugs) within the watersheds: rangelands, agricultural fields, arroyo walls, and streambanks. The sediment fingerprinting approach used elemental concentrations and naturally occurring fallout radionuclides as tracers to apportion percent contributions from the four source types of suspended sediments found in streamflow from both watersheds.
To determine the dominant sources of suspended sediment in streamflow from both watersheds, a mathematical “unmixing” model was used. Unmixing models apportion source percentages to samples of material in which those sources are mixed. These models used elemental and isotopic data in the suspended sediments to unmix them into proportional contributions from source types. The results indicated that arroyo walls and streambanks generally dominated as sources of the suspended sediment. Arroyo walls and streambanks were channel-adjacent sources, with sediments mobilized by water flowing within the stream channel. These sources accounted for greater than 50 percent of suspended sediment in all but one sample and accounted for 100 percent of suspended sediment in 5 of the 11 samples collected. Rangeland and agricultural field sources were located in uplands outside of stream channels and were detected more often during the non-irrigation season. Rangeland and agricultural field sources each were found in 5 of the 11 samples collected. Concentrations of selenium in sediment-source samples were comparatively greater in streambanks and lower in rangelands, with agricultural fields and arroyo walls being intermediate. As a result, source apportionments for particulate selenium skewed towards sources adjacent to stream channels more than for suspended sediments. Water imports for irrigation have changed the hydrology of the watersheds, and a notable fraction of imported water passes through the watersheds rapidly. The rapid flowthrough water during the irrigation season likely contributes heavily to sediment erosion and transport in Loutsenhizer Arroyo and Sunflower Drain, particularly from channel-adjacent sources of sediment. Decreases in irrigation season streamflow, at least in Loutsenhizer Arroyo, may have decreased sediment erosion and transport during the 2018–20 irrigation seasons compared to the 2015–17 seasons.
|Title||Source contributions to suspended sediment and particulate selenium export from the Loutsenhizer Arroyo and Sunflower Drain watersheds in Colorado|
|Authors||Carleton R. Bern, Cory A. Williams, Christopher G. Smith|
|Publication Subtype||USGS Numbered Series|
|Series Title||Scientific Investigations Report|
|Record Source||USGS Publications Warehouse|
|USGS Organization||Colorado Water Science Center; St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center|