The shallow ground-water system in the northern Powder River Basin consists of Upper Cretaceous to Holocene aquifers overlying the Bearpaw Shale--namely, the Fox Hills Sandstone; Hell Creek, Fort Union, and Wasatch Formations; terrace deposits; and alluvium. Ground-water flow above the Bearpaw Shale can be divided into two general flow patterns. An upper flow pattern occurs in aquifers at depths of less than about 200 feet and occurs primarily as localized flow controlled by the surface topography. A lower flow pattern occurs in aquifers at depths from about 200 to 1,200 feet and exhibits a more regional flow, which is generally northward toward the Yellowstone River with significant flow toward the Powder and Tongue Rivers.
The chemical quality of water in the shallow ground-water system in the study area varies widely, and most of the ground water does not meet standards for dissolved constituents in public drinking water established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Water from depths less than 200 feet generally is a sodium sulfate type having an average dissolved-solids concentration of 2,100 milligrams per liter. Sodium bicarbonate water having an average dissolved-solids concentration of 1,400 milligrams per liter is typical from aquifers in the shallow ground-water system at depths between 200 and 1,200 feet.
Effects of surface coal mining on the water resources in the northern Powder River Basin are dependent on the stratigraphic location of the mine cut. Where the cut lies above the water-yielding zone, the effects will be minimal. Where the mine cut intersects a water-ielding zone, effects on water levels and flow patterns can be significant locally, but water levels and flow patterns will return to approximate premining conditions after mining ceases. Ground water in and near active and former mines may become more mineralized, owing to the placement of spoil material from the reducing zone in the unsaturated zone where the minerals are subject to oxidation. Regional effects probably will be small because of the limited areal extent of ground-water flow systems where mining is feasible.
Results of digital models are presented to illustrate the effects of varying hydraulic properties on water-level changes resulting from mine dewatering. The model simulations were designed to depict maximum-drawdown situations. One simulation indicates that after 20 years of continuous dewatering of an infinite, homogeneous, isotropic aquifer that is 10 feet thick and has an initial potentiometric surface 10 feet above the top of the aquifer, water-level declines greater than 1 foot would generally be limited to within 7.5 miles of the center of the mine excavation; declines greater than 2 feet to within about 6 miles; declines greater than 5 feet to within about 3.7 miles; declines greater than 10 feet to within about 1.7 miles; and declines greater than 15 feet to within 1.2 miles.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Ground-water resources and potential hydrologic effects of surface coal mining in the northern Powder River basin, southeastern Montana
Water Supply Paper
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