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Spatial and temporal trends in selenium in the upper Blackfoot River watershed, southeastern Idaho, 2001–16

July 26, 2018

Phosphate mining in southeastern Idaho has been an important economic driver for the region and State for over 100 years, but weathering of mining waste rock has also released selenium into the Blackfoot River. This report analyzes and presents data from three separate but complementary studies monitoring selenium in streams in the region. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, has been collecting streamflow and water-quality samples year-round on the Blackfoot River above reservoir near Henry, Idaho, (USGS streamgage 13063000) since 2001. Over the same period, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ) has collected streamflow and water-quality samples from the Blackfoot River and tributaries during spring runoff. Data collected from 2001 to 2012 during these two studies were analyzed previously. This report extends the analysis using new data collected through 2016. This report also presents the results of a joint USGS and IDEQ seepage study conducted in June 2016 in the Blackfoot River near Dry Valley. Although limited in scope, this study explored the hypothesis that unaccounted selenium loading (loading in excess of tributary inputs) in this reach could be caused by groundwater inflow.

USGS dissolved selenium concentration data from streamgage 13063000 on the Blackfoot River and IDEQ data from the mainstem and mining-affected tributaries are highest shortly after peak runoff and correlate with streamflow magnitude. Although earlier analyses indicated increasing selenium concentrations from 2001 to 2012, this study shows that runoff and baseflow dissolved selenium concentrations increased and then decreased during 2001–16. High median runoff concentrations from 2005 through 2011 are associated with high snowpack and streamflow. This result suggests that more snowmelt moving through selenium-bearing waste rock leads to increased instream concentrations. The time lag between peak runoff and then peak selenium concentrations suggests that selenium mobilization may occur as snowmelt percolates through waste rock rather than by faster surface runoff. However, variability in local snow accumulation and snowmelt conditions likely affects interannual variability in selenium concentrations in the mainstem Blackfoot River and tributaries.

In contrast to runoff selenium concentrations, median baseflow (August to October) dissolved selenium concentrations were highest from 2009 to 2013. Aquatic plant senescence and release of selenium is an unlikely explanation for this trend because plants are still growing during this time of year. In addition, this trend is observed during and shortly after the observed period of high snowpack. Thus, increased baseflow selenium concentrations suggest that increased selenium loading to alluvial groundwater may occur during periods of high snowmelt and manifest in later years as higher instream concentrations during baseflows when the majority of streamflow is attributable to groundwater gains.

Runoff-period streamflow and selenium loads were calculated for the tributaries and mainstem Blackfoot River. Selenium loads vary from year to year with mainstem loads greater than the total tributary contributions in some years and less than tributary contributions in other years. In general, East Mill Creek usually accounted for the largest proportion of the total Blackfoot River load, and unaccounted loads (loads in excess of tributary inputs) often occurred in the vicinity of Spring Creek and Dry Valley. The latter observation led the USGS and IDEQ to conduct a seepage study to further investigate groundwater and selenium loading to the Blackfoot River near Dry Valley.

The seepage study results show consistent albeit small unaccounted increases in streamflow and dissolved selenium load in the Blackfoot River near Dry Valley. Field observation of a spring to the north of the river and independent groundwater monitoring data from Dry Valley to the south of the river suggest that alluvial groundwater may discharge to the river from both sides. However, the small unaccounted selenium load measured in the June 2016 study relative to loads measured during runoff suggest that groundwater loading in this reach may occur primarily during runoff. An improved understanding of alluvial groundwater extent, gradient, hydraulic conductivity, and quality would aid in interpreting unaccounted gains and losses in selenium loads in the Blackfoot River.

Finally, State of Idaho selenium water-quality criteria have recently shifted to a hierarchical fish tissue and water concentration scheme. This report summarizes existing fish tissue and water-quality data in the mainstem and offers considerations for future selenium monitoring in the Blackfoot River.

Publication Year 2018
Title Spatial and temporal trends in selenium in the upper Blackfoot River watershed, southeastern Idaho, 2001–16
DOI 10.3133/sir20185081
Authors Lauren M. Zinsser, Christopher A. Mebane, Greg C. Mladenka, Lynn R. Van Every, Marshall L. Williams
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5081
Index ID sir20185081
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Idaho Water Science Center