As part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water Quality Assessment Program, fish assemblages, environmental variables, and associated mine densities were evaluated at 18 test and reference sites during the summer of 2000 in the Coeur d'Alene and St. Regis river basins in Idaho and Montana. Multimetric and multivariate analyses were used to examine patterns in fish assemblages and the associated environmental variables representing a gradient of mining intensity. The concentrations of cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), and zinc (Zn) in water and streambed sediment found at test sites in watersheds where production mine densities were at least 0.2 mines/km2 (in a 500-m stream buffer) were significantly higher than the concentrations found at reference sites. Many of these metal concentrations exceeded Ambient Water Quality Criteria (AWQC) and the Canadian Probable Effect Level guidelines for streambed sediment. Regression analysis identified significant relationships between the production mine densities and the sum of Cd, Pb, and Zn concentrations in water and streambed sediment (r2 = 0.69 and 0.66, respectively; P < 0.01). Zinc was identified as the primary metal contaminant in both water and streambed sediment. Eighteen fish species in the families Salmonidae, Cottidae, Cyprinidae, Catostomidae, Centrarchidae, and Ictaluridae were collected. Principal components analysis of 11 fish metrics identified two distinct groups of sites corresponding to the reference and test sites, predominantly on the basis of the inverse relationship between percent cottids and percent salmonids (r = -0.64; P < 0.05). Streams located downstream from the areas of intensive hard-rock mining in the Coeur d'Alene River basin contained fewer native fish and lower abundances as a result of metal enrichment, not physical habitat degradation. Typically, salmonids were the predominant species at test sites where Zn concentrations exceeded the acute AWQC. Cottids were absent at these sites, which suggests that they are more severely affected by elevated metals than are salmonids.
Additional publication details
Fish assemblages and environmental variables associated with hard-rock mining in the Coeur d'Alene River basin, Idaho