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Water-quality trends in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin using sediment cores from reservoirs

September 1, 1997

Water-quality trends reflect the relation between water quality and human activities, chronicling changes in concentrations of environmental contaminants, introduction of new contaminants, and successful efforts in environmental pollution remediation. Historical data available for analyzing trends often have severe limitations, from questionable accuracy to unknown sampling and analytic methodologies. Where data are unavailable or have such limitations, water-quality trends sometimes can be reconstructed using sediment cores from lakes and reservoirs.

The purpose of this fact sheet is to summarize the findings of a study to assess historical changes in surface-water quality in the Rio Grande Basin (known as the Río Bravo Basin in Mexico) by analyzing changes in sediment chemistry in cores from three reservoirs: Elephant Butte Reservoir, Amistad International Reservoir, and Falcon International Reservoir (fig. 1). Sediments that erode from the land surface are transported by tributaries into the Rio Grande/Río Bravo. Metals and some persistent pesticides and industrial organic compounds sorb to these sediments, which eventually accumulate at the bottom of the reservoirs or are transported to the Gulf of Mexico. Although use of reservoir cores has limitations—for example, the cores do not record trends in non-persistent compounds—in many cases the data provide a partial historical record of water quality.

In 1991, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began full implementation of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program (Leahy and others, 1990). Also in 1991, the State of Texas established the Clean Rivers Program (CRP) administered by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). The coring study reported here was a collaborative effort between the NAWQA Program and the CRP Rio Grande Border Environmental Assessment Team, with additional funding support from the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1.