US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 72 (2008) 5935–5948


Lead concentrations and isotope ratios measured in river water colloids and streambed sediment samples along 426 km of the Sacramento River, California reveal that the influence of lead from the historical mining of massive sulfide deposits in the West Shasta Cu-mining district (at the headwaters of the Sacramento River) is confined to a 60 km stretch of river immediately downstream of that mining region, whereas inputs from past leaded gasoline emissions and historical hydraulic Au-mining in the Sierra Nevadan foothills are the dominant lead sources in the remaining 370 km of the river. Binary mixing calculations suggest that more than 50% of the lead in the Sacramento River outside of the region of influence of the West Shasta Cu-mining district is derived from past depositions of leaded gasoline emissions. This predominance is the first direct documentation of the geographic extent of gasoline lead persistence throughout a large riparian system (>160,000 km2) and corroborates previous observations based on samples taken at the mouth of the Sacramento River. In addition, new analyses of sediment samples from the hydraulic gold mines of the Sierra Nevada foothills confirm the present-day fluxes into the Sacramento River of contaminant metals derived from historical hydraulic Au-mining that occurred during the latter half of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. These fluxes occur predominantly during periods of elevated river discharge associated with heavy winter precipitation in northern California. In the broadest context, the study demonstrates the potential for altered precipitation patterns resulting from climate change to affect the mobility and transport of soil-bound contaminants in the surface environment.