Historical water-quality samples collected from the Red River over the past 35 years were compiled, reviewed for quality, and evaluated to determine influences on water quality over time. Hydrologic conditions in the Red River were found to have a major effect on water quality. The lowest sulfate concentrations were associated with the highest flow events, especially peak, rising limb, and falling limb conditions. The highest sulfate concentrations were associated with the early part of the rising limb of summer thunderstorm events and early snowmelt runoff, transient events that can be difficult to capture as part of planned sampling programs but were observed in some of the data. The first increase in flows in the spring, or during summer thunderstorm events, causes a flushing of sulfide oxidation products from scars and mine-disturbed areas to the Red River before being diluted by rising river waters.
A trend of increasing sulfate concentrations and loads over long time periods also was noted at the Questa Ranger Station gage on the Red River, possibly related to mining activities, because the same trend is not apparent for concentrations upstream. This trend was only apparent when the dynamic events of snowmelt and summer rainstorms were eliminated and only low-flow concentrations were considered. An increase in sulfate concentrations and loads over time was not seen at locations upstream from the Molycorp, Inc., molybdenum mine and downstream from scar areas. Sulfate concentrations and loads and zinc concentrations downstream from the mine were uniformly higher, and alkalinity values were consistently lower, than those upstream from the mine, suggesting that additional sources of sulfate, zinc, and acidity enter the river in the vicinity of the mine. During storm events, alkalinity values decreased both upstream and downstream of the mine, indicating that natural sources, most likely scar areas, can cause short-term changes in the buffering capacity of the Red River.
The major-element water chemistry of the Red River is controlled by dissolution of calcite and gypsum and the oxidation of pyrite, and the river is generally not well buffered with respect to pH. During higher-flow periods, Red River water was diluted by calcium-carbonate waters, most likely from unmineralized Red River tributaries and areas upstream from scars. The effect of pyrite oxidation on Red River water chemistry was more pronounced after the early 1980's. Elevated zinc concentrations were most apparent during summer thunderstorm and rising limb times, which also were associated with a decrease in alkalinity and an increase in sulfate concentrations and conductivity. The water-quality results demonstrate that it is critical to consider hydrologic conditions when interpreting water chemistry in naturally mineralized or mined drainages.