Surface-water quality and suspended-sediment quantity and quality within the Big River Basin, southeastern Missouri, 2011-13

Scientific Investigations Report 2015-5171

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 7



Missouri was the leading producer of lead in the United States—as well as the world—for more than a century. One of the lead sources is known as the Old Lead Belt, located in southeast Missouri. The primary ore mineral in the region is galena, which can be found both in surface deposits and underground as deep as 200 feet. More than 8.5 million tons of lead were produced from the Old Lead Belt before operations ceased in 1972. Although active lead mining has ended, the effects of mining activities still remain in the form of large mine waste piles on the landscape typically near tributaries and the main stem of the Big River, which drains the Old Lead Belt. Six large mine waste piles encompassing more than 2,800 acres, exist within the Big River Basin. These six mine waste piles have been an available source of trace element-rich suspended sediments transported by natural erosional processes downstream into the Big River.

A study was performed by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 7, to calculate and characterize suspended-sediment quantity and quality within the Big River basin after reclamation of the mine waste piles ended in 2012. Streamflow and suspended sediments were quantified and sampled at two locations along a 68-mile reach of the Big River between Bonne Terre and Byrnes Mill, Missouri. The results will help regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, determine impaired reaches and ecosystems for remedial and restoration efforts.

Continuous stream stage, water temperature, and turbidity, and discrete suspended-sediment concentration data were collected at the two sites between October 2011 and September 2013. Suspended-sediment samples were collected during various hydrologic conditions to develop a regression model between discrete suspended-sediment concentration and continuous turbidity. Suspended sediments collected during stormflow events were analyzed for concentrations of trace elements such as barium, cadmium, lead, and zinc within two sediment size fractions. Event loads and annual loads of suspended sediment and select trace elements in suspended sediments also were calculated.

Suspended-sediment loads computed by the regression model increased downstream from about 201,000 tons at the upstream site to about 355,000 tons at the downstream site during the study period. Stormflow-event-based (hereinafter referred to as “event-based”) suspended-sediment loads ranged from 180 to 32,000 tons at the upstream sampling site and 390 to 53,000 tons at the downstream site along the Big River. Although only seven stormflow events at the upstream site and six at the downstream site were sampled, the event-based suspended-sediment loads accounted for nearly 30 percent of the total suspended-sediment loads computed at both sites, indicating most of the suspended sediment transported through the Big River occurs during higher streamflows.

Sediment quality guidelines, known as the threshold effect concentration and the probable effect concentration, used to assess toxicity of trace-element concentrations in sediments were compared to the cadmium, lead, and zinc concentrations in suspended sediment samples collected during stormflow events. All concentrations of cadmium, lead, and zinc in event-based suspended sediment samples exceeded the threshold and probable effect concentrations. Lead and zinc concentrations in the sediment size fraction less than 0.063 millimeters also exceeded the toxic effect threshold, above which sediment is considered to be heavily polluted causing adverse effects on sediment-dwelling organisms. Concentrations of cadmium and zinc in event-based suspended sediment samples were notably higher in samples from the upstream site than samples from the downstream site, indicating the sources of sediments enriched in these trace elements decrease in the downstream area of the watershed. The reduction in concentration of cadmium and zinc could be from dissolution of the constituents during transport or possibly a decrease in downstream source material. The lead concentration exceedance of the probable effects concentration as well as the threshold effects concentration indicates that lead-rich suspended sediments in the fraction less than 0.063 millimeters are readily available within the Big River Basin for transport. These sediments remain in the system from historical mining, and as the reclamation of mine waste piles in the upstream area of the watershed reduce additional sediment loadings, these fine sediments may be continually released as the river scours the streambed and erodes stream banks causing the lead-rich suspended sediment to remain in a state of equilibrium.

Barium concentrations in suspended-sediments were nearly twice as high in stormflow event samples collected at the downstream site as compared to samples from the upstream site. The source of barium in the Big River could be from Mineral Fork and Mill Creek, which flow through the historical barite (barium sulfate, also known as tiff) mining district in Washington County, and discharge into the Big River between the two study sites.

Total trace-element loads and yields in suspended sediments were computed from the sampled events for each year in the study. The total barium loads in suspended sediments were higher for sampled events collected at the downstream site than the upstream site during both study years. Cadmium and zinc loads in suspended sediments were lower at the downstream site than the upstream site, although the decrease in total load was not substantial during the study period. Lead loads in suspended sediments were lower at the downstream site during the first study year, with a slightly higher load downstream in the second year though the increase from upstream to downstream was small. Event-based yields were higher at the upstream site, indicating that readily available sediment sources are closer to the upstream site where more mining affected areas are located. The estimates determined during large precipitation events indicate that large sources of suspended sediments with large concentrations of trace elements are still available for transport within the Big River.


Suggested Citation

Barr, M.N., 2016, Surface-water quality and suspended-sediment quantity and quality within the Big River Basin, southeastern Missouri, 2011–13: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2015–5171, 39 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Surface-Water Quality
  • Suspended-Sediment Quantity
  • Suspended-Sediment Quality
  • Summary
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Surface-water quality and suspended-sediment quantity and quality within the Big River Basin, southeastern Missouri, 2011-13
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Missouri Water Science Center
vi, 39 p.
Time Range Start:
United States
Other Geospatial:
Big River Basin
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):