Expanded mining and use of coal resources in the Rocky Mountain region of the western United States will have substantial impacts on water resources, environmental amenities, and social and economic conditions. The U.S. Geological Survey has completed a 3-year assessment of the Yampa River basin, Colorado and Wyoming, where increased coal-resource development has begun to affect the environment and quality of life.
Economic projections of the overall effects of coal-resource development were used to estimate water use and the types and amounts of waste residuals that need to be assimilated into the environment. Based in part upon these projections, several physical-based models and other semiquantitative assessment methods were used to determine possible effects upon the basin's water resources.
Depending on the magnitude of mining and use of coal resources in the basin, an estimated 0.7 to 2.7 million tons (0.6 to 2.4 million metric tons) of waste residuals may be discharged annually into the environment by coal-resource development and associated economic activities. If the assumed development of coal resources in the basin occurs, annual consumptive use of water, which was approximately 142,000 acre-feet (175 million cubic meters) during 1975, may almost double by 1990. In a related analysis of alternative cooling systems for coal-conversion facilities, four to five times as much water may be used consumptively in a wet-tower, cooling-pond recycling system as in once-through cooling. An equivalent amount of coal transported by slurry pipeline would require about one-third the water used consumptively by once-through cooling for in-basin conversion.
Current conditions and a variety of possible changes in the water resources of the basin resulting from coal-resource development were assessed. Basin population may increase by as much as threefold between 1975 and 1990. Volumes of wastes requiring treatment will increase accordingly. Potential problems associated with ammonia-nitrogen concentrations in the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs were evaluated using a waste-load assimilative-capacity model. Changes in sediment loads carried by streams due to increased coal mining and construction of roads and buildings may be apparent only locally; projected increases in sediment loads relative to historic loads from the basin are estimated to be 2 to 7 percent.
Solid-waste residuals generated by coal-conversion processes and disposed of into old mine pits may cause widely dispersed ground-water contamination, based on simulation-modeling results. Projected increases in year-round water use will probably result in the construction of several proposed reservoirs. Current seasonal patterns of streamflow and of dissolvedsolids concentrations in streamflow will be altered appreciably by these reservoirs. Decreases in time-weighted mean-annual dissolved-solids concentrations of as much as 34 percent are anticipated, based upon model simulations of several configurations of proposed reservoirs. Detailed statistical analyses of water-quality conditions in the Yampa River basin were made. Regionalized maximum waterquality concentrations were estimated for possible comparison with future conditions. Using Landsat imagery and aerial photographs, potential remote-sensing applications were evaluated to monitor land-use changes and to assess both snow cover and turbidity levels in streams. The technical information provided by the several studies of the Yampa River basin assessment should be useful to regional planners and resource managers in evaluating the possible impacts of development on the basin's water resources.