Groundwater quality and hydrology with emphasis on selenium mobilization and transport in the lower Gunnison River Basin, Colorado, 2012-16.

Published online
04 Sep 2019
Content type

Thomas, J. C. & McMahon, P. B. & Arnold, L. R.

Publication language
USA & Colorado


Dissolved selenium is a contaminant of concern in the lower Gunnison River Basin, Colorado. Selenium is naturally present in the Cretaceous Mancos Shale and is leached to groundwater and surface water by irrigation. The groundwater on the east side of the Uncompahgre River in Delta and Montrose Counties is one of the primary sources of selenium concentration and load to surface water in the lower Gunnison River Basin. Although little information about the contribution of groundwater to surface water has been historically available, groundwater has often been implicated as an appreciable source of selenium to surface water. From 2012 to 2016, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Gunnison Basin Selenium Management Program, established a 30-well groundwater-monitoring network on irrigated land to characterize the hydrology and groundwater quality of the shallow groundwater system on the east side of the Uncompahgre River in the lower Gunnison River Basin. The installation of the 30-well network and the data collected allowed for the development of a conceptual model of selenium mobilization and transport in the shallow groundwater system. Monitoring wells were completed in surficial deposits and in weathered Mancos Shale, which generally exhibited unconfined and confined conditions, respectively. Groundwater-quality monitoring provides information on the distribution of selenium and the geochemical processes controlling selenium concentrations in shallow groundwater. Monitoring wells were sampled between August 2013 and March 2015 to understand groundwater quality, seasonality, sources of recharge, and groundwater age. Concentrations of dissolved selenium ranged from below the limit of detection to 4,100 micrograms per liter (µg/L), with a median concentration of 14 µg/L. Concentrations showed a high degree of spatial variability and no seasonal difference. Similarly, no seasonal pattern was observed in specific conductance values of groundwater despite the considerably lower specific conductance value of irrigation water. Reduction-oxidation processes are important controls on selenium mobility. Nitrate derived from geologic material was a primary control on reduction-oxidation conditions in groundwater and inhibited selenium reduction to less mobile forms. Nitrate was reduced by denitrification in groundwater, but it was not reduced to the extent necessary to allow for selenium reduction. Groundwater ages were determined for groundwater samples from eight wells and ranged from 6 to 20 years old. Isotopic data indicate groundwater was recharged by irrigation water; no information collected supported an older, deeper source of recharge to the shallow groundwater system. Data on water level in all wells showed response to irrigation practices, but the response was delayed in some wells, which may be an indication of distance from recharge source.

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