Temporal and longitudinal extent of surface coal mining influences on water quality and benthic macroinvertebrate communities in central Appalachian headwater streams
Cianciolo, Thomas Raymond
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Increased loading of dissolved ions (salinization) and trace elements from surface coal mining is a common alteration to headwater streams in the central Appalachian region. However, temporal and spatial trends of water quality and associated influences on biota in these stream systems have not been well-studied. To address this research need, I analyzed temporal trends in specific conductance, ion matrix, and benthic macroinvertebrate communities in 24 headwater streams, including 19 influenced by surface mining, from 2011-2019. There was limited evidence of recovery of water chemistry or macroinvertebrate communities in these streams, indicating lasting impacts from surface coal mining. Among benthic macroinvertebrates, Ephemeroptera and the scraper functional feeding group were most-impacted by chronic salinization in study streams. In addition, I analyzed spatial patterns of water chemistry in a subset of these streams using synoptic sampling of multiple constituents under baseflow and highflow conditions. Study results indicate that water chemistry is spatially dynamic and can be influenced by both groundwater dilution and inputs from tributaries. Lastly, I investigated patterns in selenium bioaccumulation across and within streams, from particulate matter to top trophic levels (i.e. fish and salamanders). I found that benthic macroinvertebrates had the highest concentrations of selenium in these ecosystems, with lower concentrations in salamander and fish species. However, there was limited evidence of longitudinal trends in bioaccumulation dynamics downstream of mining impacts. Collectively, this work indicates long-term (ca. decades) coal-mining influences but also highlights future research needs to better understand downstream impacts to water quality and biotic communities.
General Audience Abstract
Surface coal mining affects water quality in central Appalachian headwater streams. However, long-term and downstream patterns of impacted water quality and potential effects on aquatic life have not been well-studied. To address this research need, I analyzed trends in water quality parameters and aquatic insect communities in 24 headwater streams from 2011-2019. There was limited evidence of recovery of water chemistry or aquatic life in these streams, indicating lasting impacts from surface coal mining. Certain aquatic insects including Ephemeroptera (mayflies) appear to be more impacted than others by long-term altered water quality. In addition to trends over time, I also analyzed downstream variation in water chemistry in a subset of these streams under baseflow conditions and after a rain event. Results indicate that water chemistry can vary greatly within a stream network and is influenced by tributary inputs and dilution from groundwater. Concentrations of the trace element selenium can also be elevated as a result of surface mining. This is of environmental concern because selenium can biomagnify, where concentrations increase in organisms higher in the food chain and can cause toxic effects. Here, I investigated selenium bioaccumulation patterns across organisms in the food chain and with distance downstream across six headwater streams. I found that aquatic insects had the highest concentrations of selenium, with lower concentrations in salamanders and fish. This work indicates that surface coal mining has longterm (ca. decades) effects on headwater streams, but also points to future research to better understand downstream impacts to water quality and aquatic life.
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