Metals transport in the Sacramento River, California, 1996-1997; Volume 2: Interpretation of metal loads

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2000-4002

Prepared in cooperation with the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, California State Water Resources Control Board, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Commerce, National Marine Fisheries Service
Edited by:
Charles N. Alpers ORCID iD , Ronald C. Antweiler ORCID iD , Howard E. Taylor , Peter D. Dileanis , and Joseph L. Domagalski ORCID iD



Metals transport in the Sacramento River, northern California, from July 1996 to June 1997 was evaluated in terms of metal loads from samples of water and suspended colloids that were collected on up to six occasions at 13 sites in the Sacramento River Basin. Four of the sampling periods (July, September, and November 1996; and May-June 1997) took place during relatively low-flow conditions and two sampling periods (December 1996 and January 1997) took place during high-flow and flooding conditions, respectively. This study focused primarily on loads of cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc, with secondary emphasis on loads of aluminum, iron, and mercury.

Trace metals in acid mine drainage from abandoned and inactive base-metal mines, in the East and West Shasta mining districts, enter the Sacramento River system in predominantly dissolved form into both Shasta Lake and Keswick Reservoir. The proportion of trace metals that was dissolved (as opposed to colloidal) in samples collected at Shasta and Keswick dams decreased in the order zinc ≈ cadmium > copper > lead. At four sampling sites on the Sacramento River--71, 256, 360, and 412 kilometers downstream of Keswick Dam--trace-metal loads were predominantly colloidal during both high- and low-flow conditions. The proportion of total cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc loads transported to San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary (referred to as the Bay-Delta) that is associated with mineralized areas was estimated by dividing loads at Keswick Dam by loads 412 kilometers downstream at Freeport and the Yolo Bypass. During moderately high flows in December 1996, mineralization-related total (dissolved + colloidal) trace-metal loads to the Bay-Delta (as a percentage of total loads measured downstream) were cadmium, 87 percent; copper, 35 percent; lead, 10 percent; and zinc, 51 percent. During flood conditions in January 1997 loads were cadmium, 22 percent; copper, 11 percent; lead, 2 percent; and zinc, 15 percent. During irrigation drainage season from rice fields (May-June 1997) loads were cadmium, 53 percent; copper, 42 percent; lead, 20 percent; and zinc, 75 percent. These estimates must be qualified by the following factors: (1) metal loads at Colusa in December 1996 and at Verona in May-June 1997 generally exceeded those determined at Freeport during those sampling periods. Therefore, the above percentages represent maximum estimates of the apparent total proportion of metals from mineralized areas upstream of Keswick Dam; and (2) for logistics reasons, the Sacramento River was sampled at Tower Bridge instead of at Freeport during January 1997.

Available data suggest that trace metal loads from agricultural drainage may be significant during certain flow conditions in areas where metals such as copper and zinc are added as agricultural amendments. Copper loads for sampling periods in July and September 1996 and in May-June 1997 show increases of dissolved and colloidal copper and in colloidal zinc between Colusa and Verona, the reach of the Sacramento River along which the Colusa Basin Drain, the Sacramento Slough, and other agricultural return flows are tributaries. Monthly sampling of these two agricultural drains by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Program shows seasonal variations in metal concentrations, reaching maximum concentrations of 4 to 6 micrograms per liter in "dissolved" (0.45-micrometer filtrate) copper concentrations in May 1996, December 1996, and June 1997. The total (dissolved plus colloidal) load of copper from the Colusa Basin Drain in June 1997 was 18 kilograms per day, whereas the copper load in Spring Creek, which drains the inactive mines on Iron Mountain, was 20 kilograms per day during the same sampling period. For comparison, during the January 1997 flood, the copper load in Spring Creek was about 1,100 kilograms per day and the copper load in the Yolo Bypass was about 7,300 kilograms per day. The data clearly indicate that most copper and zinc loads during the January 1997 flood entered the Sacramento River upstream of Colusa, and upstream of the influence of the most intense agricultural drainage return flows in the Sacramento River watershed.

This study has demonstrated that some trace metals of environmental significance (cadmium, copper, and zinc) in the Sacramento River are transported largely in dissolved form at upstream sites (below Shasta Dam, below Keswick Dam, and at Bend Bridge) proximal to the mineralized areas of the West Shasta and East Shasta mining districts. In contrast, these trace metals are transported largely in colloidal form at downstream sites (Colusa, Verona, Freeport, and Yolo Bypass). Aluminum, iron, and lead were observed to be transported predominantly in the colloidal phase at all mainstem Sacramento River sampling sites during all sampling periods in this study. Despite continuous water treatment, which has removed 85 to 90 percent of the cadmium, copper, and zinc from the mine drainage at Iron Mountain, Spring Creek remains a significant source of these metals to the Sacramento River system.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Metals transport in the Sacramento River, California, 1996-1997; Volume 2: Interpretation of metal loads
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Sacramento, CA
Contributing office(s):
California Water Science Center
xi, 106 p.
United States
Other Geospatial:
Sacramento River