Toll Gate Creek is a perennial stream draining a suburban area in Aurora, Colorado, where selenium concentrations have consistently exceeded the State of Colorado aquatic-life standard for selenium of 4.6 micrograms per liter since the early 2000s. In cooperation with the City of Aurora, Colorado, Utilities Department, a synoptic water-quality study was performed along an 18-kilometer reach of Toll Gate Creek extending from downstream from Quincy Reservoir to the confluence with Sand Creek to develop a detailed understanding of streamflow and concentrations and loads of selenium in Toll Gate Creek. Streamflow and surface-water quality were characterized for summer low-flow conditions (July–August 2007) using four spatially overlapping synoptic-sampling subreaches. Mass-balance methods were applied to the synoptic-sampling and tracer-injection results to estimate streamflow and develop spatial profiles of concentration and load for selenium and other chemical constituents in Toll Gate Creek surface water. Concurrent groundwater sampling determined concentrations of selenium and other chemical constituents in groundwater in areas surrounding the Toll Gate Creek study reaches. Multivariate principal-component analysis was used to group samples and to suggest common sources for dissolved selenium and major ions. Hydrogen and oxygen stable-isotope ratios, groundwater-age interpretations, and chemical analysis of water-soluble paste extractions from core samples are presented, and interpretation of the hydrologic and geochemical data support conclusions regarding geologic sources of selenium and the processes affecting selenium loading in the Toll Gate Creek watershed.
Streamflow conditions observed and measured during the synoptic water-quality study represent summer base-flow conditions and rainfall conditions for July 2007. The lack of large tributary inflows and the spatial distribution of small tributary inflows, seeps, and springs indicate that diffuse and discrete groundwater inflow supports streamflow during low-flow conditions along the entire 18-kilometer stream reach. Concentrations of dissolved selenium within all subreaches of Toll Gate Creek exceeded the Colorado aquatic-life standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter in 2007. Concentrations of selenium in the upper portion of the Toll Gate Headwaters subreach (TGH) remained close to the aquatic-life standard at about 5 micrograms per liter. Downstream from a concrete-lined channel section, inflows with selenium concentrations greater than the stream contribute selenium load to surface water. However, stream selenium concentrations were less than 20 micrograms per liter all along Toll Gate Creek. Concentrations of selenium in groundwater were in general substantially greater than the Colorado aquatic-life standard of 4.6 micrograms per liter and at some locations were greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency primary drinking-water standard for selenium of 50 micrograms per liter. The distribution of selenium concentrations in groundwater, springs, and the 11 inflows with the greatest selenium concentrations indicates that shallow groundwater in surficial materials and the Denver Formation bedrock is a source of selenium loading to Toll Gate Creek and that selenium loading is distributed along the entire length of the study reach downstream from the concrete-lined channel. Water-quality and solids-sampling results from this study indicate weathering processes release water-soluble selenium from the underlying Denver Formation claystone bedrock with subsequent cycling of selenium in the aquatic environment of Toll Gate Creek. Exposure of the Denver Formation selenium-bearing bedrock to oxidizing atmospheric conditions, surface water, and groundwater, oxidizes selenide, held as a trace element in pyrite or in complexes with organic matter, to selenite and selenate. Secondary weathering products including iron oxides and selenium-bearing salts have accumulated in the weathered zone in the semiarid climate and also can serve as sources or sinks of selenium. Present-day selenium-bearing evaporative salts observed along streambanks concentrate selenium from underlying bedrock and sediments and another source of selenium to Toll Gate Creek surface water. These evaporative deposits are rapidly dissolved during high streamflow events contributing selenium and total dissolved solids to Toll Gate Creek. Concentrations of selenium and major ions exhibited less variability in surface water than concentrations in inflow or groundwater indicating that hydrological, geochemical, and biological instream processes were effectively mixing the inflow and groundwater discharge received by the stream. In addition, plant uptake was likely attenuating selenium and nitrate concentrations in surface water during the summer low-flow study period.
Additional Publication Details
USGS Numbered Series
Streamflow and water-quality conditions including geologic sources and processes affecting selenium loading in the Toll Gate Creek watershed, Aurora, Arapahoe County, Colorado, 2007