Mercury has been identified as an important contaminant in the Delta, based on elevated concentrations of methylmercury (a toxic, organic form that readily bioaccumulates) in fish and wildlife. There are health risks associated with human exposure to methylmercury by consumption of sport fish, particularly top predators such as bass species. Original mercury sources were upstream tributaries where historical mining of mercury in the Coast Ranges and gold in the Sierra Nevada and Klamath-Trinity Mountains caused contamination of water and sediment on a regional scale. Remediation of abandoned mine sites may reduce local sources in these watersheds, but much of the mercury contamination occurs in sediments stored in the riverbeds, floodplains, and the Bay-Delta, where scouring of Gold-Rush-era sediment represents an ongoing source.
Conversion of inorganic mercury to toxic methylmercury occurs in anaerobic environments including some wetlands. Wetland restoration managers must be cognizant of potential effects on mercury cycling so that the problem is not exacerbated. Recent research suggests that wetting-drying cycles can contribute to mercury methylation. For example, high marshes (inundated only during the highest tides for several days per month) tend to have higher methylmercury concentrations in water, sediment, and biota compared with low marshes, which do not dry out completely during the tidal cycle. Seasonally inundated flood plains are another environment experiencing wetting and drying where methylmercury concentrations are typically elevated.
Stream restoration efforts using gravel injection or other reworking of coarse sediment in most watersheds of the Central Valley involve tailings from historical gold mining that are likely to contain elevated mercury in associated fines. Habitat restoration projects, particularly those involving wetlands, may cause increases in methylmercury exposure in the watershed. This possibility should be evaluated.
The DRERIP mercury conceptual model and its four submodels (1. Methylation, 2. Bioaccumulation, 3. Human Health Effects, and 4. Wildlife Heath Effects) can be used to understand the general relationships among drivers and outcomes associated with mercury cycling in the Delta. Several linkages between important drivers and outcomes have been identified as important but highly uncertain (i.e. poorly understood). For example, there may be significant wildlife health effect of mercury on mammals and reptiles in the Delta, but there is currently very little or no information about it. The characteristics of such linkages are important when prioritizing and funding restoration projects and associated monitoring in the Delta and its tributaries.