Intensive mining activity and highly mineralized rock formations have had significant impacts on surface-water and streambed-sediment quality and aquatic life within the upper reaches of the Uncompahgre River in western Colorado. A synoptic study by the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment Program was completed in the upper Uncompahgre River Basin in 1998 to better understand the relations of trace elements (with emphasis on aluminum, arsenic, copper, iron, lead, and zinc concentrations) in water, streambed sediment, and aquatic life. Water-chemistry, streambed-sediment, and benthic macroinvertebrate samples were collected during low-flow conditions between October 1995 and July 1998 at five sites on the upper Uncompahgre River, all downstream from historical mining, and at three sites in drainage basins of the Upper Colorado River where mining has not occurred. Aquatic bryophytes were transplanted to all sites for 15 days of exposure to the water column during which time field parameters were measured and chemical water-quality and benthic macroinvertebrate samples were collected. Stream habitat characteristics also were documented at each site.
Certain attributes of surface-water chemistry among streams were significantly different. Concentrations of total aluminum, copper, iron, lead, and zinc in the water column and concentrations of dissolved aluminum, copper, and zinc were significantly different between nonmining and mining sites. Some sites associated with mining exceeded Colorado acute aquatic-life standards for aluminum, copper, and zinc and exceeded Colorado chronic aquatic-life standards for aluminum, copper, iron, lead, and zinc. Concentrations of copper, lead, and zinc in streambed sediments were significantly different between nonmining and mining sites. Generally, concentrations of arsenic, copper, lead, and zinc in streambed sediments at mining sites exceeded the Canadian Sediment Quality Guidelines probable effect level (PEL), except at two mining sites where concentrations of copper and zinc were below the PEL. Concentrations of arsenic, copper, iron, and lead in transplanted bryophytes were significantly different between nonmining and mining sites. Bioconcentration factors calculated for 15-day exposure using one-half of the minimum reporting level were significantly different between nonmining and mining sites. In general, concentrations of trace elements in streambed sediment and transplanted bryophytes were more closely correlated than were the concentrations of trace elements in the water column with streambed sediments or concentrations in the water column with transplanted bryophytes.
Stream habitat was rated as optimal to suboptimal using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Rapid Bioassessment Protocols for all sites in the study area. Generally, stream habitat conditions were similar at nonmining compared to mining sites and were suitable for diverse macroinvertebrate communities. All study sites had optimal instream habitat except two mining sites with suboptimal instream habitat because of disturbances in stream habitat.
The benthic macroinvertebrate community composition at nonmining sites and mining sites differed. Mining sites had significantly lower total abundance of macroinvertebrates, fewer numbers of taxa, and lower dominance of Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies), and Trichoptera (caddisflies), and a larger percentage of tolerant species than did nonmining sites. The predominance of Baetis sp. (mayflies), Hydropsychidae (caddisflies), and large percentage of Orthocladiinae chironomids (midges) at mining sites indicated that these species may be tolerant to elevated trace-element concentrations. The absence of Heptageniidae (mayflies), Chloroperlidae (stoneflies), and Rhyacophila sp. (caddisflies) at mining sites indicated that these species may be sensitive to elevated trace-element concentrations.
Comparison of field parameters and