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Understanding and documenting the scientific basis of selenium ecological protection in support of site-specific guidelines development for Lake Koocanusa, Montana, U.S.A., and British Columbia, Canada

August 11, 2020

Modeling of ecosystems is a part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s protocol for developing site-specific selenium guidelines for protection of aquatic life. Selenium as an environmental contaminant is known to bioaccumulate and cause reproductive effects in fish and wildlife. Here we apply a modeling methodology—ecosystem-scale selenium modeling—to understand and document the scientific basis for predicting and validating ecological protection for Lake Koocanusa, a transboundary reservoir between Montana and British Columbia. A comprehensive set of site-specific data compiled from public databases (Federal, State, and Provincial) and reports by Teck Coal Ltd., is available in a companion U.S. Geological Survey data release. The tissue guideline used within modeling here to assess protection is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s national selenium guideline for whole-body fish (dry weight); however, other numeric values for a whole-body guideline or other tissue types may be assumed if applicable tissue-to-tissue conversion factors are available. 

We consider the report assembled here as a working document that presents a model that can effectively address and structure the needs of (1) scientific understanding in representing the lake’s ecosystem and selenium biodynamics and (2) policy and management development during a decision-making process, but it is open to modification and updating as more ecologically detailed data become available. The approach brings together the main concerns involved in selenium toxicity: likelihood of high exposure, inherent species sensitivity, and close connectivity of ecosystem characteristics and behavioral ecology of predators. Detailed site-specific modeling equations are provided to document the linked factors that determine the responses of ecosystems to selenium. A series of scenarios quantifies the implications of choices of site-specific variables including food-web species, bioavailability of particulate material, and partitioning between the dissolved and particulate phases at the base of food webs. A gradient mapping tool applied to Lake Koocanusa provides a precedent for ecosystem-scale modeling of lakes by recognizing the importance of lake strata and hydrodynamics as components of modeling. 

Data requirements for ecosystem modeling, including ecological and hydrological process information fundamental to the dietary biodynamics of selenium in site-specific food webs, were assessed as a precursor to model validation for Lake Koocanusa. Understanding these relationships is necessary to connect modeling outcomes to reproductive effects and establish boundaries, in the case of Lake Koocanusa, for the influences of dam operation, fish-community viability, and its Clean Water Act impaired 303(d)-listing status on ecosystem function. 

We find that an assemblage of conditions affects the representation of Lake Koocanusa’s ecosystem within modeling scenarios but that the constructed gradient maps, mechanistic model, and associated bioaccumulation potentials portray and quantify the variables that are determinative to protection of predator species. Ecological and hydrological sorting of compiled individual data points on a site- and species-specific basis helps identify and address model uncertainties. Sources of uncertainty include (1) the scarcity of data for some environmental media compartments across time and locations, (2) the complexity of hydrodynamic conditions that can lead to seasonal ecological disconnects such as in selenium partitioning from water into particulates, and (3) the functional status of Lake Koocanusa’s ecosystem because of cumulative effects of various environmental stresses (for example, fish-community changes, flow regime changes, parasites, gonadal dysfunction, and increasing mining input-selenium concentrations since 1984). To this last point, it is important to determine where Lake Koocanusa is in an impairment-restoration cycle so as not to base protection on survivor bias, the maintenance of a currently degraded ecosystem, or normalized toxicity. In a broader context, one of the overall consequences of revised selenium regulations is that their derivation is now dependent on being able to define and understand the status of the ecosystem on which protection is based.

Publication Year 2020
Title Understanding and documenting the scientific basis of selenium ecological protection in support of site-specific guidelines development for Lake Koocanusa, Montana, U.S.A., and British Columbia, Canada
DOI 10.3133/ofr20201098
Authors Theresa S. Presser, David L. Naftz
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2020-1098
Index ID ofr20201098
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Earth System Processes Division