Methods for assessing natural background water quality of streams affected by historical mining are vigorously debated. An empirical method is proposed in which stream-specific estimation equations are generated from relationships between either pH or dissolved Cu concentration in stream water and the Fe/Cu concentration ratio in Fe-precipitates presently forming in the stream. The equations and Fe/Cu ratios for pre-mining deposits of alluvial ferricrete then were used to reconstruct estimated pre-mining longitudinal profiles for pH and dissolved Cu in three acidic streams in Montana, USA. Primary assumptions underlying the proposed method are that alluvial ferricretes and modern Fe-precipitates share a common origin, that the Cu content of Fe-precipitates remains constant during and after conversion to ferricrete, and that geochemical factors other than pH and dissolved Cu concentration play a lesser role in determining Fe/Cu ratios in Fe-precipitates. The method was evaluated by applying it in a fourth, naturally acidic stream unaffected by mining, where estimated pre-mining pH and Cu concentrations were similar to present-day values, and by demonstrating that inflows, particularly from unmined areas, had consistent effects on both the pre-mining and measured profiles of pH and Cu concentration. Using this method, it was estimated that mining has affected about 480 m of Daisy Creek, 1.8 km of Fisher Creek, and at least 1 km of Swift Gulch. Mean values of pH decreased by about 0.6 pH units to about 3.2 in Daisy Creek and by 1-1.5 pH units to about 3.5 in Fisher Creek. In Swift Gulch, mining appears to have decreased pH from about 5.5 to as low as 3.6. Dissolved Cu concentrations increased due to mining almost 40% in Daisy Creek to a mean of 11.7 mg/L and as much as 230% in Fisher Creek to 0.690 mg/L. Uncertainty in the fate of Cu during the conversion of Fe-precipitates to ferricrete translates to potential errors in pre-mining estimates of as much as 0.25 units for pH and 22% for dissolved Cu concentration. The method warrants further testing in other mined and unmined watersheds. Comparison of pre-mining water-quality estimates derived from the ferricrete and other methods in single watersheds would be particularly valuable. The method has potential for use in monitoring remedial efforts at mine sites with ferricrete deposits. A reasonable remediation objective might be realized when the downstream pattern of Fe/Cu ratios in modern streambed Fe-precipitates corresponds to the pattern in pre-mining alluvial ferricrete deposits along a stream valley.
Additional publication details
An empirical method for estimating instream pre-mining pH and dissolved Cu concentration in catchments with acidic drainage and ferricrete