Mercury in the Carson and Truckee River basins of Nevada

Open-File Report 73-352

Prepared in cooperation with the Nevada Division of Health



Upstream from major pre-1900 ore milling in the Carson and Truckee River basins, "background" concentrations of total mercury in the upper 1 to 3 inches of sand- to clay-sized stream-bottom sediment are less than 0.1 ug/g (microgram per gram). Downstream, measured concentrations were as much as 200 times the background level. Greatest concentrations were encountered in the Carson River basin within and immediately upstream from Lahontan Reservoir. Data from for the Carson River near Fort Churchill suggest that most of the mercury in the sampled bottom sediment may be present as mercuric sulfide or as a component of one of more non-methyl organic compounds or complexes, rather than existing in the metallic state. Regardless of state, this reservoir of mercury is of concern because of its possible availability to the aquatic food chain and, ultimately, to man.

Among 48 samples of surface water from 29 sites in the two basins, the maximum measured total-mercury concentration was 6.3 ug/1 (micrograms per liter), for a sample from the Carson River near Fort Churchill. Except downstream from Lahontan Reservoir, most other measured values were less than 1 ug/1. (The U.S> Environmental Protection Agency interim limit for drinking water is 5 ug/1.) The total-mercury content of stream water is related to the mercury content of bottom sediments and the rate of streamflow, because the latter affects the suspended-sediment transporting capability of the stream,. Near Fort Churchill, total-mercury concentrations that might be expected at streamflows greater than those of 1971-72 are: as much as 10-15 ug/1 or more at 2,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), and as much as 10-20 ug/1 or more at 3,000 cfs. Elsewhere, expectable concentrations are much less because the bottom sediment contains much less mercury.

The mercury contents of water samples from 36 wells in the Carson and Truckee basins were all less than 1 ug/1, indicating that mercury is not a problem in ground water, even adjacent to areas where stream-bottom sediment is enriched in mercury.

Limited data indicate that the Carson River above Lahontan Reservoir and the reservoir itself contain only trace amounts of dissolved arsenic, cyanide, selenium, and silver. Among 17 additional trace metals analysed for on four unfiltered samples from the river above the reservoir, only six of the metals were consistently present in concentrations exceeding detection limits. Maximum measured concentrations for the six metals were:

aluminum, >670 ug/1; iron, 2,500 ug/1; manganese, 1,100 ug/1; molybdenum, 15 ug/1; titanium, 110 ug/1; and vanadium, 15 ug/1. Presumably, the detected metals were associated largely or almost entirely with the suspended-sediment phase of the water samples.

Selenium and silver concentrations in sampled well waters from the Carson and Truckee basins were uniformly low, with one exception--as elenium concentration of 18 ug/1 for the water of a shallow well southwest of Fallon (Public Health Service limit, 10 ug/1). The arsenic content of 15 sampled well waters ranged from 0 to 1,500 ug/1 (0 to 1.5 ppm), with seven of the values greater than 50 ug/1 (the Public Health Service limit).

Geospatial Extents

Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Mercury in the Carson and Truckee River basins of Nevada
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
8 p.
Number of Pages:
United States
Other Geospatial:
Carson River Basin;Truckee River Basin