US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Scientific Investigations Report 2006–5008, 1-374, (2008)


This report documents water quality in Camp Far West Reservoir from October 2001 through August 2003. The reservoir, located at approximately 300 feet above sea level in the foothills of the northwestern Sierra Nevada, California, is a monomictic lake characterized by extreme drawdown in the late summer and fall. Thermal stratification in summer and fall is coupled with anoxic conditions in the hypolimnion. Water-quality sampling was done at approximately 3-month intervals on eight occasions at several stations in the reservoir, including a group of three stations along a flow path in the reservoir: an upstream station in the Bear River arm (principal tributary), a mid-reservoir station in the thalweg (pre-reservoir river channel), and a station in the deepest part of the reservoir, in the thalweg near Camp Far West Dam. Stations in other tributary arms of the reservoir included those in the Rock Creek arm of the reservoir, a relatively low-flow tributary, and the Dairy Farm arm, a small tributary that receives acidic, metal-rich drainage seasonally from the inactive Dairy Farm Mine, which produced copper, zinc, and gold from underground workings and a surface pit.

Several water-quality constituents varied significantly by season at all sampling stations, including major cations and anions, total mercury (filtered and unfiltered samples), nitrogen (ammonia plus organic), and total phosphorus. A strong seasonal signal also was observed for the sulfur-isotope composition of aqueous sulfate from filtered water. Although there were some spatial differences in water quality, the seasonal variations were more profound. Concentrations of total mercury (filtered and unfiltered water) were highest during fall and winter; these concentrations decreased at most stations during spring and summer. Anoxic conditions developed in deep parts of the reservoir during summer and fall in association with thermal stratification. The highest concentrations of methylmercury in unfiltered water were observed in samples collected during summer from deep-water stations in the anoxic hypolimnion. In the shallow (less than 14 meters depth) oxic epilimnion, concentrations of methylmercury in unfiltered water were highest during the spring and lowest during the fall. The ratio of methylmercury to total mercury (MeHg/HgT) increased systematically from winter to spring to summer, largely in response to the progressive seasonal decrease in total mercury concentrations, but also to some extent because of increases in MeHg concentrations during summer.

Water-quality data for Camp Far West Reservoir are used in conjunction with data from linked studies of sediment and biota to develop and refine a conceptual model for mercury methylation and bioaccumulation in the reservoir and the lower Bear River watershed. It is hypothesized that MeHg is produced by sulfate-reducing bacteria in the anoxic parts of the water column and in shallow bed sediment. Conditions were optimal for this process during late summer and fall. Previous work has indicated that Camp Far West Reservoir is a phosphate-limited system—molar ratios of inorganic nitrogen to inorganic phosphorus in filtered water were consistently greater than 16 (the Redfield ratio), sometimes by orders of magnitude. Therefore, concentrations of orthophosphate were expectedly very low or below detection at all stations during all seasons. It is further hypothesized that iron-reducing bacteria facilitate release of phosphorus from iron-rich sediments during summer and early fall, stimulating phytoplankton growth in the fall and winter, and that the MeHg produced in the hypolimnion and metalimnion is released to the entire water column in the late fall during reservoir destratification (vertical mixing).

Mercury bioaccumulation factors (BAF) were computed using data from linked studies of biota spanning a range of trophic position: zooplankton, midge larvae, mayfly nymphs, crayfish, threadfin shad, bluegill, and spotted bass. Significant increases in total mercury in tissue with increasing organism size were observed for all three fish species and for crayfish. The BAF values were computed using the average methylmercury concentration (wet) in biota divided by the arithmetic mean concentration of methylmercury in filtered water (0.04 nanograms per liter). As expected, the BAF values increased systematically with increasing trophic position. Values of BAF were 190,000 for zooplankton; 470,000 to 930,000 for three taxa of invertebrates; 2.7 million for threadfin shad (whole body); 4.2 million for bluegill (fillet); and 10 million for spotted bass (fillet). The BAF values are high compared with those for biota in other reservoirs in northern California and elsewhere, indicating relatively efficient biomagnification of mercury in Camp Far West Reservoir.