Water resources of the Rattlesnake Butte area, a site of potential lignite mining in west-central North Dakota

Water-Resources Investigations Report 83-4228




In much of western North Dakota, minable lignite beds and associated sand beds are valuable local aquifers. Strip mining disrupts the aquifers and could significantly impact the local hydrology, imposing hardships on local residents. This comprehensive water-resources study of a 147-square-mile coal area in west-central North Dakota was done to facilitate sound management decisions regarding the suitability of the site for mining.

Two strippable lignite beds, identified as the D and E beds, in the lower 250 to 300 feet of the Sentinel Butte Member of the Fort Union Formation underlie much of two small stream basins. The lignites and two closely associated sand deposits are the only consistently occurring aquifers within several hundred feet of the land surface.

The D lignite bed underlies nearly the entire study area, but is not water bearing where it is structurally uplifted beneath upland areas. It is, for the most part, marginally confined. The E lignite bed overlies the D bed and is extensively eroded along North Creek in the southern part of the study area. The E bed is either unsaturated or unconfined in most of its area of occurrence. Direction of ground-water flow in both lignite aquifers is largely controlled by topography.

Interconnected sand beds deposited as channel fill in braided streams form aquifers between the E and D beds (E-D aquifer) and below the D bed (D-HT aquifer). Both aquifers underlie the central part of the study area and each consists of as much as 100 feet of predominantly fine to medium silty unconsolidated sand. Maximum depth to the top of the aquifers was 200 feet for the E-D aquifer and 320 feet for the D-HT aquifer. The E-D aquifer, where near land surface, is unconfined, whereas the D-HT aquifer is entirely confined. Direction of ground-water flow in the D-HT aquifer is not influenced by the local topography as in the three overlying aquifers.

Aquifers also occur at much greater depth beneath the study area in strata of Late Cretaceous and early Tertiary age. The Fox Hills and Tongue River aquifers are most commonly utilized and lie at depths of about 1,700 and 750 feet, respectively.

Water in all aquifers beneath the study area is a sodium bicarbonate or sodium sulfate type. Mean dissolved solids in the four aquifers in the Sentinel Butte Member ranged from 1,290 to 1,970 milligrams per liter- Most of the samples were soft water, had low dissolved iron concentration, and were slightly to moderately colored (tan to brown) by dissolved organics. Several samples from the four aquifers had a perceptible hydrogen sulfide odor.

North Creek and an unnamed tributary of the Green River drain most of the study area. North Creek flows intermittently during most years, while the Green River tributary flows perennially and has base flow of about 0.2 cubic foot per second. North Creek has predominately a sodium sulfate type water and the Green River tributary has a sodium bicarbonate-sulfate type water. At high flows, the dissolved solids generally are less than 1,000 milligrams per liter, and the water contains greater percentages of calcium and magnesium than at low flow.

The impacts of strip mining on the shallow ground-water flow system would be very localized due to the already low water levels and the segmented nature of the flow system. Similarly, water-quality impacts on the ground-water system would be localized. Natural geochemical processes are effective in limiting the severity and lateral spread of chemically enriched waters.

Streamflow magnitudes should not be significantly affected by mining activities. Stream quality impacts should be readily manageable by ordinary routing, impoundment, and treatment techniques.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Water resources of the Rattlesnake Butte area, a site of potential lignite mining in west-central 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, 53 p. 2 Plates: 23.74 x 12.80 inches and 21.90 x 14.80 inches