US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Science of the Total Environment 327 (2004) 215–237


Concentrations and loads of total mercury and methylmercury were measured in streams draining abandoned mercury mines and in the proximity of geothermal discharge in the Cache Creek watershed of California during a 17-month period from January 2000 through May 2001. Rainfall and runoff were lower than long-term averages during the study period. The greatest loading of mercury and methylmercury from upstream sources to downstream receiving waters, such as San Francisco Bay, generally occurred during or after winter rainfall events. During the study period, loads of mercury and methylmercury from geothermal sources tended to be greater than those from abandoned mining areas, a pattern attributable to the lack of large precipitation events capable of mobilizing significant amounts of either mercury-laden sediment or dissolved mercury and methylmercury from mine waste. Streambed sediments of Cache Creek are a significant source of mercury and methylmercury to downstream receiving bodies of water. Much of the mercury in these sediments is the result of deposition over the last 100–150 years by either storm-water runoff, from abandoned mines, or continuous discharges from geothermal areas. Several geochemical constituents were useful as natural tracers for mining and geothermal areas, including the aqueous concentrations of boron, chloride, lithium and sulfate, and the stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in water. Stable isotopes of water in areas draining geothermal discharges showed a distinct trend toward enrichment of 18O compared with meteoric waters, whereas much of the runoff from abandoned mines indicated a stable isotopic pattern more consistent with local meteoric water.