The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, conducted a study to investigate environmental factors that may contribute to the bioaccumulation of mercury in two Front Range reservoirs. One of the reservoirs, Brush Hollow Reservoir, currently (2009) has a fish-consumption advisory for mercury in walleye (Stizostedion vitreum), and the other, Pueblo Reservoir, which is nearby, does not. Water, bottom sediment, and zooplankton samples were collected during 2008 and 2009, and a sediment-incubation experiment was conducted in 2009. Total mercury concentrations were low in midlake water samples and were not substantially different between the two reservoirs. The only water samples with detectable methylmercury were collected in shallow areas of Brush Hollow Reservoir during spring. Mercury concentrations in reservoir bottom sediments were similar to those reported for stream sediments from unmined basins across the United States. Despite higher concentrations of fish-tissue mercury in Brush Hollow Reservoir, concentrations of methylmercury in sediment were as much as 3 times higher in Pueblo Reservoir. Mercury concentrations in zooplankton were at the low end of concentrations reported for temperate lakes in the Northeastern United States and were similar between sites, which may reflect the seasonal timing of sampling.
Factors affecting bioaccumulation of mercury were assessed, including mercury sources, water quality, and reservoir characteristics. Atmospheric deposition was determined to be the dominant source of mercury; however, due to the proximity of the reservoirs, atmospheric inputs likely are similar in both study areas. Water-quality constituents commonly associated with elevated concentrations of mercury in fish (pH, alkalinity, sulfate, nutrients, and dissolved organic carbon) did not appear to explain differences in fish-tissue mercury concentrations between the reservoirs. Low methylmercury concentrations in hypolimnetic water indicate low potential for increased methylmercury production following the development of anoxic conditions in summer. Based on the limited dataset, water-level fluctuations and shoreline characteristics appear to best explain differences in fish-tissue mercury concentrations between the reservoirs. Due to the shallow depth and the large annual water-level fluctuations at Brush Hollow Reservoir, proportionally larger areas of shoreline at Brush Hollow Reservoir are subjected to annual reflooding compared to Pueblo Reservoir. Moreover, presence of macrophyte beds and regrowth of terrestrial vegetation likely increase the organic content of near-shore sediments in Brush Hollow Reservoir, which may stimulate methylmercury production in littoral areas subject to reflooding. Results of a laboratory incubation experiment were consistent with this hypothesis.