Hydrology of the Wibaux-Beach lignite deposit area, eastern Montana and western North Dakota

Water-Resources Investigations Report 83-4157




The Paleocene Harmon lignite, the principal commercial bed of the Wihaux-Beach deposit, underlies at least 150 square miles along the Montana-North Dakota border. An estimated 1 billion tons of strippable reserves underlies about 50 square miles. The Harmon lignite bed also is the most consistently occurring shallow aquifer in the area. This study was conducted to determine possible impacts of surface mining on the area's water resources.

Two aquifer systems, the lower Tongue River and the upper Ludlow, were identified within about 300 feet below the Harmon lignite aquifer, but none were identified within the overlying 350 feet. The aquifers (systems) are separated by varying thicknesses of interbedded clay and silt. The Harmon lignite aquifer extends uninterrupted for several miles eastward (down dip) from the outcrop. It is from 3 to 34 feet thick and from zero to 350 feet deep. The top of the lower Tongue River aquifer system is from 0 to 115 feet below the Harmon lignite and the system is 13 to 98 feet thick. The upper Ludlow aquifer system is 128 to 214 feet below the Harmon lignite and is 5 to 84 feet thick.

Both the lower Tongue River and upper Ludlow aquifer systems consist of discontinuous, vertically stacked, sinuous sand bodies deposited as channel fill in meandering and braided streams. The probability of encountering a sand bed within the aquifer systems at any one location in the study area is about 60 percent for the lower Tongue River aquifer system and 80 percent for the upper Ludlow aquifer system.

Water in each aquifer flows toward the northeast and occurs under confined conditions, except in the Harmon lignite aquifer near its outcrop. Recharge occurs directly by precipitation at the outcrops and by downward leakage elsewhere. The major discharge from each aquifer is by downward leakage, although the Harmon lignite aquifer discharges less than 0.20 cubic foot per second to surface drainages within the study area.

Differences in chemical quality of water among the three aquifers are subtle, but significant. The mean dissolved-solids concentrations are: Harmon lignite aquifer, 1,930 milligrams per liter; lower Tongue River aquifer system, 1,810 milligrams per liter; and upper Ludlow aquifer system, 1,550 milligrams per liter. Alkalinity, calcium, and magnesium concentrations decrease with aquifer depth. The majority of the samples were a sodium sulfate-bicarbonate type. The median pH values, from the uppermost to the lowermost aquifer, were 8.1, 8.3, and 8.5.

The chemical quality of water in the Harmon lignite aquifer near the outcrop is affected by reactions in the aerated soil zone and unsaturated parts of the aquifer. Where the outcrop is heavily clinkered, recharge waters reach the aquifer rapidly and have little opportunity for solute uptake in the unsaturated zone. In nonclinkered areas, recharge waters slowly percolate through chemically active soil and unsaturated parts of the aquifer. The resulting water commonly contains 2,500 to 5,000 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids, is a calcium-magnesium sulfate type, and has a pH of less than 7.0.

The impacts of mining on streamflow and stream water quality should be manageable through the effective use of earth structures for routing and impoundment of runoff water. Mining-induced potentiometric declines in the Harmon lignite aquifer probably will be several feet up to 2 or 3 miles from the mine. Mining impacts on other aquifers will be minor.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Hydrology of the Wibaux-Beach lignite deposit area, eastern Montana and western North Dakota
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
North Dakota Water Science Center, Dakota Water Science Center
Report: vi, 89 p.; Plate: 23.37 x 18.77 inches