EECE Seminar - Dr. Diane McKnight

Oct 21, 2019
11:30 AM
12:30 PM
Green Hall, Rodin Auditorium, room 0120

Diane McKnight, Professor
AEESP Distinguished Lecturer
Civil, and Environmental, and Architectural Engineering
University of Colorado, Boulder

Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind: Acid Mine Drainage and Climate Change in the Rocky Mountains

ABSTRACT: In the Rocky Mountain watersheds, weathering of disseminated pyrite in the country rock and in mining workings generates acidic, metal-enriched water that drains into streams and rivers. This overall process is referred to as acid rock drainage (ARD). ARD is a long-term and pervasive environmental problem in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras, which provide water supply for communities and agriculture throughout the south western US. Contamination has not abated since the mining boom ended about 70 years ago, largely because these contaminants are continuously generated from the exposure to oxygen of pyrite in the mine workings and tailings. Typically these streams have high dissolved concentrations of toxic metals, such as Zn, Cu, Cd and Pb, and their streambeds are covered with iron and aluminum oxides. These streams and rivers support species-poor aquatic ecosystems, and fish are typically absent. A study in an ARD stream system that drains into Dillon Reservoir, a water supply for Denver, Colorado, has found that acidity and concentrations of metals and rare earth elements have been steadily increasing in the summer and fall over the past several decades. Another trend is that mountain resorts have been pursuing a “four seasons resort” approach to adapt to changing climate, and less reliable winter snowpack for skiing. ARD thwarts these plans by constraining the use of stream water for snowmaking and impacting summer recreation, such as fishing and rafting. In addition to general environmental concerns, this situation has focused attention on remediation of abandoned mines which is inherently challenging, as illustrated by the difficulties in remediating the Gold King Mine near Durango, CO. One issue for state and federal agencies and watershed stakeholders’ groups is determining which of the many abandoned mines in a catchment are the main ARD sources, and which of these are suitable for remediation. Addressing the ARD problem in mountain catchments will require a convergent research approach that integrates understanding of hydrology, water quality and aquatic ecosystem processes within a regulatory and water resources framework.