The primary purpose of this report is to present information relating to flow-adjusted temporal trends in major-ion constituents and properties for 16 sampling sites in the Tongue and Powder River watersheds based on data collected during 1980–2010. In association with this primary purpose, the report presents background information on major-ion characteristics (including specific conductance, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium adsorption ratio, sodium, alkalinity, chloride, fluoride, dissolved sulfate, and dissolved solids) of the sampling sites and coal-bed methane (CBM) produced water (groundwater pumped from coal seams) in the site watersheds, trend analysis methods, streamflow conditions, and factors that affect trend results.
The Tongue and Powder River watersheds overlie the Powder River structural basin (PRB) in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. Limited extraction of coal-bed methane (CBM) from the PRB began in the early 1990’s, and increased dramatically during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. CBM-extraction activities produce discharges of water with high concentrations of dissolved solids (particularly sodium and bicarbonate ions) relative to most stream water in the Tongue and Powder River watersheds. Water-quality of CBM produced water is of concern because of potential effects of sodium on agricultural soils and potential effects of bicarbonate on aquatic biota.
Two parametric trend-analysis methods were used in this study: the time-series model (TSM) and ordinary least squares regression (OLS) on time, streamflow, and season. The TSM was used to analyze trends for 11 of the 16 study sites. For five sites, data requirements of the TSM were not met and OLS was used to analyze trends. Two primary 10-year trend-analysis periods were selected. Trend-analysis period 1 (water years 1986–95; hereinafter referred to as period 1) was selected to represent variability in major-ion concentrations in the Tongue and Powder River watersheds before potential effects of CBM-extraction activities. Trend analysis period 2 (water years 2001–10; hereinafter referred to as period 2) was selected because it encompassed substantial CBM-extraction activities and therefore might indicate potential effects of CBM-extraction activities on water quality of receiving streams in the Tongue and Powder River watersheds. For sites that did not satisfy data requirements for the TSM, OLS was used to analyze trends for period 2 (if complete data were available) or a 6-year period (2005–10).
Flow-rate characteristics of CBM-produced water were estimated to allow general comparisons with streamflow characteristics of the sampling sites. The information on flow-rate characteristics of CBM-produced water in relation to streamflow does not account for effects of disposal, treatment, or other remediation activities on the potential quantitative effects of CBM-produced water on receiving streams. In many places, CBM-produced water is discharged into impoundments or channels in upper reaches of tributary watersheds where water infiltrates and does not directly contribute to streamflow. For Tongue River at State line (site 4) mean annual pumping rate of CBM-produced water during water years 2001–10 (hereinafter referred to as mean CBM pumping rate) was 6 percent of the mean of annual median streamflows during water years 2001–10 (hereinafter referred to as 2001–10 median streamflow). For main-stem Tongue River sites 5, 7, and 10, mean CBM pumping rate was 8–12 percent of 2001–10 median streamflow. For main-stem Powder River sites (sites 12, 13, and 16), mean CBM pumping rates were 26, 28, and 34 percent of 2001–10 median streamflows, respectively.
For main-stem Tongue River sites analyzed by using the TSM and downstream from substantial CBM-extraction activities [Tongue River at State line (site 4), Tongue River at Tongue River Dam (site 5), Tongue River at Birney Day School (site 7), and Tongue River at Miles City (site 10)], generally small significant or nonsignificant decreases in most constituents are indicated for period 1. For period 2 for these sites, the TSM trend results do not allow confident conclusions concerning detection of effects of CBM-extraction activities on stream water quality. Detection of significant trends in major-ion constituents and properties for period 2 generally was infrequent, and direction, magnitudes, and significance of fitted trends were not strongly consistent with relative differences in water quality between stream water and CBM-produced water. The TSM indicated significant or generally large magnitude increases in median values of sodium adsorption ratio (SAR), sodium, and alkalinity for period 2 for sites 5 and 7, which might indicate potential effects of CBM-extraction activities on stream water. However, other factors, including operations of Tongue River Reservoir, irrigation activities, contributions of saline groundwater, and operations of the Decker coal mine, confound confident determination of causes of detected significant trends for sites 5 and 7. For all mainstem Tongue River sites, trends for period 2 generally are within ranges of those for period 1 before substantial CBM-extraction activities.
For main-stem Powder River sites analyzed by using the TSM [Powder River at Sussex (site 11), Powder River at Arvada (site 12), Powder River at Moorhead (site 13), and Powder River near Locate (site 16)], significant or generally large magnitude decreases in median values of SAR, sodium, estimated alkalinity, chloride, fluoride, specific conductance, and dissolved solids are indicated for period 1. Patterns in trend results for period 1 for main-stem Powder River sites are consistent with effects of Salt Creek oil-brine reinjection that started in 1990. Trend results for all main-stem Powder River sites downstream from substantial CBM-extraction activities (sites 12, 13, and 16) indicate evidence of potential effects of CBM-extraction activities on stream water quality, although evidence is stronger for sites 12 and 13 than for site 16. Evidence in support of potential CBM effects includes significant increases in median values of SAR, sodium, and estimated alkalinity for period 2 for sites 12, 13, and 16 that are consistent with relative differences between stream water and CBM-produced water. Significant increases in median values of these constituents for period 2 are not indicated for Powder River at Sussex (site 11) upstream from substantial CBM-extraction activities. In interpreting the trend results, it is notable that the fitted trends evaluate changes in median concentrations and also notable that changes in median concentrations that might be attributed to CBM-extraction activities probably are more strongly evident during low to median streamflow conditions than during mean to high streamflow conditions. This observation is relevant in assessing trend results in relation to specific water-quality concerns, including effects of water-quality changes on irrigators and effects on stream biota and ecology.