The Owyhee River drains an extremely rugged and sparsely populated landscape in northern Nevada, southwestern Idaho, and eastern Oregon. Most of the segment between the Oregon State line and Lake Owyhee is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and few water-quality data exist for evaluating environmental impacts. As a result, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, assessed this river segment to characterize chemical and biological quality of the river, identify where designated beneficial uses are met and where changes in stream quality occur, and provide data needed to address activities related to environmental impact assessments and Total Maximum Daily Loads. Water-quality issues identified at one or more sites were water temperature, suspended sediment, dissolved oxygen, pH, nutrients, trace elements, fecal bacteria, benthic invertebrate communities, and periphyton communities.
Generally, summer water temperatures routinely exceeded Oregon's maximum 7-day average criteria of 17.8 degrees Celsius. The presence of few coldwater taxa in benthic invertebrate communities supports this observation. Suspended-sediment concentrations during summer base flow were less than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Dissolved solids concentrations ranged from 46 to 222 mg/L, were highest during base flow, and tended to increase in a downstream direction. Chemical compositions of water samples indicated that large proportions of upland-derived water extend to the lower reaches of the study area during spring runoff. Dissolved fluoride and arsenic concentrations were highest during base flow and may be a result of geothermal springs discharging to the river. No dissolved selenium was detected.
Upstream from the Rome area, spring runoff concentrations of suspended sediment ranged from 0 to 52 mg/L, and all except at the Three Forks site were typically below 20 mg/L. Stream-bottom materials from the North Fork Owyhee River, an area with no mines, were enriched with nine trace elements, which indicates that this basin may be a natural source of these elements.
Near Rome, the part of the study area not included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, land-use impacts resulted in elevated populations of Escherichia coli bacteria (E. coli) during base flow and elevated concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus during spring runoff. Sites in this area had the highest numbers of benthic invertebrates; the fewest Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, and Trichoptera taxa; and the highest Hilsenhoff Biotic Index scores. These results suggest degraded stream quality. Periphyton communities at sites in this area approached nuisance levels and could cause significant dissolved oxygen depletions and pH values that exceed Oregon's recommended criteria. Stream-bottom materials from Jordan Creek were enriched with mercury and manganese, which probably were ultimately caused by past mining in that basin.
Below Crooked Creek, elevated suspended sediment concentrations (142 mg/L), phosphorus concentrations (0.23 mg/L), and E. coli populations (370 most probable number per 100 milliliters) during the largest spring runoff event could be the result of inputs at the lower end of Jordan Valley and (or) inputs from Crooked Creek. The New Zealand Mud Snail, a highly competitive gastropod introduced to the Snake River in the 1980s, was collected just downstream from the Crooked Creek confluence.