Temporal and longitudinal extent of surface coal mining influences on water quality and benthic macroinvertebrate communities in central Appalachian headwater streams

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Virginia Tech

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.

surface coal mining, salinity, benthic macroinvertebrates, trace elements, specific conductance, bioaccumulation, selenium