Mercury in the mix: An in situ mesocosm approach to assess relative contributions of mercury sources to methylmercury production and bioaccumulation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
Thursday, 18 December 2014
Mercury (Hg) contamination is considered one of the greatest threats to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the San Francisco Estuary ecosystems. This threat is driven by the transformation of Hg, deposited in the Delta from erosion of upstream historic mining debris and atmospheric deposition, by native bacteria into the more toxic and biologically available form, methylmercury (MeHg), in the wetlands and sediment of the Delta. To effectively manage this threat, a quantitative understanding of the relative contribution of the different Hg sources to MeHg formation is needed. Mass balance estimates indicate as much as 99% of the Hg entering the Delta arrives via tributary inputs. Of the tributary Hg load, approximately 90% is adsorbed to suspended particles from tributary discharge and 10% is in the dissolved fraction, potentially of atmospheric origin. In comparison, the remaining 1-2% of the Hg entering the Delta arrives through direct atmospheric deposition (wet and dry). The relative importance of these sources to MeHg production within the Delta is not linearly related to the mass inputs because atmospherically-derived Hg is believed to be more reactive than sediment-bound Hg with respect to MeHg formation. We conducted an in situ mesocosm dosing experiment where different Hg sources to the Delta (direct atmospheric, dissolved riverine and suspended sediment) were “labeled” with different stable Hg isotopes and added to mesocosms within four different wetlands. Mercury isotopes added with the streambed sediments were equilibrated in sealed containers for six months; while the Hg isotopes associated with the precipitation and river water were equilibrated for 24 hours prior to use. After adding the isotopes, we sampled the water column, overlying air, bottom sediments and fish (Gambusia) at time intervals up to 30 days. Preliminary results from this experiment suggest that aqueous Hg sources (Hg introduced with precipitation and filtered river water) are 10-1,000x more available to methylating microbes and fish uptake than particle bound Hg. Consequently, although atmospheric Hg deposition may contribute a relatively small portion of the total Hg loading to the Delta, it may contribute to a substantial portion of the MeHg produced within the Delta.