Reconnaissance hydrogeochemical studies of the Humboldt River basin and adjacent areas of northern Nevada have identified local sources of acidic waters generated by historical mine workings and mine waste. The mine-related acidic waters are rare and generally flow less than a kilometer before being neutralized by natural processes. Where waters have a pH of less than about 3, particularly in the presence of sulfide minerals, the waters take on high to extremely high concentrations of many potentially toxic metals. The processes that create these acidic, metal-rich waters in Nevada are the same as for other parts of the world, but the scale of transport and the fate of metals are much more localized because of the ubiquitous presence of caliche soils. Acid mine drainage is rare in historical mining districts of northern Nevada, and the volume of drainage rarely exceeds about 20 gpm. My findings are in close agreement with those of Price and others (1995) who estimated that less than 0.05 percent of inactive and abandoned mines in Nevada are likely to be a concern for acid mine drainage. Most historical mining districts have no draining mines. Only in two districts (Hilltop and National) does water affected by mining flow into streams of significant size and length (more than 8 km). Water quality in even the worst cases is naturally attenuated to meet water-quality standards within about 1 km of the source. Only a few historical mines release acidic water with elevated metal concentrations to small streams that reach the Humboldt River, and these contaminants and are not detectable in the Humboldt. These reconnaissance studies offer encouraging evidence that abandoned mines in Nevada create only minimal and local water-quality problems. Natural attenuation processes are sufficient to compensate for these relatively small sources of contamination. These results may provide useful analogs for future mining in the Humboldt River basin, but attention must be given to matters of scale: larger volumes of waste and larger volumes of water could easily overwhelm the delicate balance of natural attenuation described here.
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USGS Numbered Series
Overview of mine drainage geochemistry at historical mines, Humboldt River basin and adjacent mining areas, Nevada. Chapter E.