Geologic processes strongly influence water and sediment quality in aquatic ecosystems but rarely are geologic principles incorporated into routine biomonitoring studies. We test if elevated concentrations of metals in water and sediment are restricted to streams downstream of mines or areas that may discharge mine wastes. We surveyed 198 catchments classified as “historically mined” or “unmined,” and based on mineral-deposit criteria, to determine whether water and sediment quality were influenced by naturally occurring mineralized rock, by historical mining, or by a combination of both. By accounting for different geologic sources of metals to the environment, we were able to distinguish aquatic ecosystems limited by metals derived from natural processes from those due to mining. Elevated concentrations of metals in water and sediment were not restricted to mined catchments; depauperate aquatic communities were found in unmined catchments. The type and intensity of hydrothermal alteration and the mineral deposit type were important determinants of water and sediment quality as well as the aquatic community in both mined and unmined catchments. This study distinguished the effects of different rock types and geologic sources of metals on ecosystems by incorporating basic geologic processes into reference and baseline site selection, resulting in a refined assessment. Our results indicate that biomonitoring studies should account for natural sources of metals in some geologic environments as contributors to the effect of mines on aquatic ecosystems, recognizing that in mining-impacted drainages there may have been high pre-mining background metal concentrations.