Reconnaissance investigation of water quality, bottom sediment, and biota associated with irrigation drainage in the American Falls Reservoir area, Idaho, 1988-89

Water-Resources Investigations Report 90-4120

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation



Increased concern about the quality of irrigation drainage and its potential effects on human health, fish, and wildlife prompted the Department of the Interior to begin a program during late 1985 to identify irrigation-induced water-quality problems that might exist in the Western States. During `988, the Task Group on Irrigation Drainage selected the American Falls Reservoir area, Idaho, for study to determine whether potentially toxic concentrations of trace elements or organochlorine compounds existed in water, bottom sediment, and biota. The 91-square mile American Falls Reservoir has a total capacity of 1.7 million acre-feet and is used primarily for irrigation-water supply and power generation. Irrigated land upstream from the reservoir totals about 550,000 acres. Total water inflow to the reservoir is about 5.8 million acre-feet per year, of which about 63 percent is from surface-water runoff, 33 percent is from ground-water discharge, and about 4 percent is from ungaged tributaries, canals, ditches, sloughs, and precipitation. Ground-water discharge to the reservoir originates, in part, from irrigation of land upstream from and adjacent to the reservoir. The 1988 water year was a drought year, and water discharge was about 34 percent less than during 1939-88. Water samples were collected during the post-irrigation (October 1987) and irrigation (July 1988) seasons and were analyzed for major ions and trace elements. Bottom-sediment samples were collected during the irrigation season and were analyzed for trace elements and organochlorine compounds. Biota samples were collected during May, June, July, and August 1988 and were analyzed for trace elements and organochlorine compounds. Dissolved-solids concentrations in water ranged from 216 to 561 milligrams per liter. The similarity of dissolved-solids concentrations between the irrigation and post-irrigation seasons can be attributed to the large volume of ground-water discharge in the study area. Most trace-element concentrations in water were near analytical reporting limits; none exceeded State or Federal water-quality standards or criteria. Trace elements that were present at all sites in analytically detectable concentrations (in micrograms per liter) included arsenic (2 to 7), boron (40 to 130), uranium (0.7 to 3.5), vanadium (1 to 6) and zinc (less than 3 to 42). The ranges of arsenic, cadmium, and mercury concentrations in water analyzed during previous investigations. Selenium concentrations ranged from less than 1 (the reporting limit) to 6 micrograms per liter and did not exceed State of Federal water-quality standards or criteria. Concentrations of most trace elements in bottom sediment were similar to geometric mean concentrations in study area soils and were within the expected 95-percent range of concentrations in soils in the Western United States. Mercury concentrations in 9 of the 18 bottom-sediment samples exceeded the 95th-percentile concentration for mercury in area soils. Selenium concentration for selenium in area soils and, in 1 sample, exceeded the upper limit of the expected 95-percent range for selenium in Western United States soils. Most organochlorine compunds in bottom sediment were lower than analytical reporting limits. Only DDE (0.2 micrograms per kilogram) and DDT (0.3 micrograms per kilogram) were detected in bottom sediment from the Portneuf River. Except for mercury and selenium, concentrations of most trace elements in biota were not considered high enough to be harmful to humans or wildlife. Some mercury concentrations in fish exceeded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Contaminant Biomonitoring Program 85th-percentile concentration and were at levels that might not be safe for human consumption, especially for pregnant women. Elevated mercury concentrations in fish-eating waterbirds, such as double-crested cormorants, indicates biomagnification in the food chain. Selenium concentrations generally were low except in mallard livers (6.6 to 41.8 micrograms per gram, dry weight). This range is within the range of selenium concentrations (19 to 43 micrograms per gram, dry weight) reported in livers of ducks from Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, California, where waterbird deformities, moralities, and reproductive impairment were observed. Selenium concentrations in mayfly nymphs were at or near dietary concentrations (5 to 8 micrograms per gram, dry weight) that had adverse reproductive effects on mallards during laboratory toxicity studies. p,p'DDE was detected in all waterbird eggs and juvenile mallared carcasses. Highest concentrations were in cormorant eggs (0.59 to 5.70 micrograms per gram, wet weight). p,p'DDE concentrations in four of five cormorant eggs exceeded the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering criterion for protection of aquatic wildlife (1 microgram per gram, wet weight, for p,p'DDT and its metabolites). p,p'DDE was detected in all fish samples except rainbow trout. p,p'DDE was detected in one sample of Utah suckers. No concentrations of p,p'DDE or p,p'DDT in fish exceeded the criterion for protection of aquatic life. Total PCB's were detected in all cormorant eggs and all fish samples. PCB's were not detected in other waterbird eggs. PCB concentrations in cormorant eggs (0.28 to 1.8 micro per gram, wet weight) were lower than concentrations that would be expected to cause adverse effects. Two of the three carp samples contained PCB concntrations higher than the recommended level for protection of fish and wildlife (0.4 micrograms per gram, wet weight). Eggshell thinning was noted in cormorant and mallard eggs but was not considered great enough to cause reporductive problems. Observations of the general health of fish and waterbird populations during the study indicated that the area did not appear to have a serious contaminant problem that could be associated with irrigation grainage. No waterbird or fish die-offs were observed, and nesting waterbird populations were noted to be increasing. Selenium concentrations in mallard livers, however, are of concern, as are p,p'DDE residues in cormorant eggs.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Reconnaissance investigation of water quality, bottom sediment, and biota associated with irrigation drainage in the American Falls Reservoir area, Idaho, 1988-89
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Idaho Water Science Center
viii, 78 p.
Time Range Start:
Time Range End:
United States
Other Geospatial:
American Falls Reservoir Area