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Tracer Tests Steer Cleanup of Mined Watersheds

Continuous Water-Quality Sampling Site - North Fork of the Animas River, Colorado
A site of continuous water-quality sampling during a tracer test conducted on the North Fork of the Animas River, Colorado. Photo Credit: USGS.

A new stream-tracer technology developed by Toxic Substances Hydrology (Toxics) Program scientists identifies and quantifies the individual sources of contamination that have the most severe effect on water and ecosystem quality in mined watersheds. The method involves introduction of a harmless chemical tracer to the stream, extensive measurement of the tracers and contaminants downstream, and interpretation with a simulation model of chemical transport in the stream. Mined watersheds often are affected by hundreds of potential contamination sites. Without this technology, prioritizing investments in remediation and assuring acceptable improvements in water quality is virtually impossible. At the request of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, the City of Helena Montana, and Stakeholders (which includes local citizens and industry) at Creede, Colorado, and Questa, New Mexico, 13 stream tracer experiments have been conducted by Toxics Program scientists throughout western states to help in decision-making related to abandoned mine lands contamination problems. In each case, the results enabled the agencies to target contaminant sources and prioritize remediation activities. Find out more about the USGS Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Initiative.


Kimball, B.A., 1997, Use of tracer injections and synoptic sampling to measure metal loading from acid mine drainage: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet FS-245-96, 4 p.

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