Mercury (Hg) and methylmercury (CH3Hg+) concentrations in streambed sediment and water were determined at 27 locations throughout the Sacramento River Basin, CA. Mercury in sediment was elevated at locations downstream of either Hg mining or Au mining activities where Hg was used in the recovery of Au. Methylmercury in sediment was highest (2.84 ng/g) at a location with the greatest wetland land cover, in spite of lower total Hg at that site relative to other river sites. Mercury in unfiltered water was measured at 4 locations on the Sacramento River and at tributaries draining the mining regions, as well as agricultural regions. The highest levels of Hg in unfiltered water (2248 ng/l) were measured at a site downstream of a historic Hg mining area, and the highest levels at all sites were measured in samples collected during high streamflow when the levels of suspended sediment were also elevated. Mercury in unfiltered water exceeded the current federal and state recommended criterion for protection of aquatic life (50 ng/l as total Hg in unfiltered water) only during high streamflow conditions. The highest loading of Hg to the San Francisco Bay system was attributed to sources within the Cache Creek watershed, which are downstream of historic Hg mines, and to an unknown source or sources to the mainstem of the Sacramento River upstream of historic Au mining regions. That unknown source is possibly associated with a volcanic deposit. Methylmercury concentrations also were dependent on season and hydrologic conditions. The highest levels (1.98 ng/l) in the Sacramento River, during the period of study, were measured during a major flood event. The reactivity of Hg in unfiltered water was assessed by measuring the amount available for reaction by a strong reducing agent. Although most Hg was found to be nonreactive, the highest reactivity (7.8% of the total Hg in water) was measured in the sample collected from the same site with high CH3Hg+ in sediment, and during the time of year when that site was under continual flooded conditions. Although Hg concentrations in water downstream of the Hg mining operations were measured as high as 2248 ng/l during stormwater runoff events, the transported Hg was found to have a low potential for geochemical transformations, as indicated by the low reactivity to the reducing agent (0.0001% of the total), probably because most of the Hg in the unfiltered water sample was in the mercury sulfide form.
Additional publication details
Mercury and methylmercury in water and sediment of the Sacramento River Basin, California