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Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5124

U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY
Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5124

Assessment of Hydrology, Water Quality, and Trace Elements in Selected Placer-Mined Creeks in the Birch Creek Watershed near Central, Alaska, 2001–05

Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management

By Ben W. Kennedy and Dustin E. Langley

Executive Summary

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, completed an assessment of hydrology, water quality, and trace-element concentrations in streambed sediment of the upper Birch Creek watershed near Central, Alaska. The assessment covered one site on upper Birch Creek and paired sites, upstream and downstream from mined areas, on Frying Pan Creek and Harrison Creek. Stream-discharge and suspended-sediment concentration data collected at other selected mined and unmined sites helped characterize conditions in the upper Birch Creek watershed. The purpose of the project was to provide the Bureau of Land Management with baseline information to evaluate watershed water quality and plan reclamation efforts. Data collection began in September 2001 and ended in September 2005.

There were substantial geomorphic disturbances in the stream channel and flood plain along several miles of Harrison Creek. Placer mining has physically altered the natural stream channel morphology and removed streamside vegetation. There has been little or no effort to re-contour waste rock piles. During high-flow events, the abandoned placer-mine areas on Harrison Creek will likely contribute large quantities of sediment downstream unless the mined areas are reclaimed.

During 2004 and 2005, no substantial changes in nutrient or major-ion concentrations were detected in water samples collected upstream from mined areas compared with water samples collected downstream from mined areas on Frying Pan Creek and Harrison Creek that could not be attributed to natural variation. This also was true for dissolved oxygen, pH, and specific conductance—a measure of total dissolved solids. Sample sites downstream from mined areas on Harrison Creek and Frying Pan Creek had higher median suspended-sediment concentrations, by a few milligrams per liter, than respective upstream sites. However, it is difficult to attach much importance to the small downstream increase, less than 10 milligrams per liter, in median suspended-sediment concentration for either basin. During low-flow conditions in 2004 and 2005, previously mined areas investigated on Harrison Creek and on Frying Pan Creek did not contribute substantial suspended sediments to sample sites downstream from the mined areas. No substantial mining-related water- or sediment-quality problems were detected at any of the sites investigated in the upper Birch Creek watershed during low-flow conditions.

Average annual streamflow and precipitation were near normal in 2002 and 2003. Drought conditions, extreme forest fire impact, and low annual streamflow set apart the 2004 and 2005 summer seasons. Daily mean streamflow for upper Birch Creek varied throughout the period of record—from maximums of about 1,000 cubic feet per second to minimums of about 20 cubic feet per second. Streamflow increased and decreased rapidly in response to rainfall and rapid snowmelt events because the steep slopes, thin soil cover, and permafrost areas in the watershed have little capacity to retain runoff.

Median suspended-sediment concentrations for the 115 paired samples from Frying Pan Creek and 101 paired samples from Harrison Creek were less than the 20 milligrams per liter total maximum daily load. The total maximum daily load was set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the upper Birch Creek basin in 1996. Suspended-sediment paired-sample data were collected using automated samplers in 2004 and 2005, primarily during low-flow conditions. Suspended-sediment concentrations in grab samples from miscellaneous sites ranged from less than 1 milligram per liter during low-flow conditions to 1,386 milligrams per liter during a high-flow event on upper Birch Creek.

Streambed-sediment samples were collected at six sites on Harrison Creek, two sites on Frying Pan Creek, and one site on upper Birch Creek. Trace-element concentrations of mercury, lead, and zinc in streambed sediment were less than the consensus-based probable-effect concentrations for aquatic life protection published in MacDonald and others (2000). Elevated arsenic, chromium, and nickel concentrations detected in several bed sediment samples indicate sediment input from mineralized local bedrock.

Water samples were collected for analysis of mercury concentration at ten sites during August and September 2005. Total-recoverable and total-dissolved-mercury concentrations for all samples were less than State and Federal drinking-water standards of 2.0 micrograms per liter.

Monitoring of suspended-sediment concentration, water quality, and trace elements in streambed sediment are recommended for Harrison Creek to document conditions during moderate to high flows and to monitor downstream impacts of reclamation work. Continued seasonal operation of the upper Birch Creek stream gage and crest-stage gages on Harrison Creek are recommended to document streamflow and to aid in ongoing flood-plain restoration and design work.

Contents

Executive Summary
Introduction
Methods of Investigation
Results
Comparison of Paired-Site Results
Summary and Conclusions
Acknowledgments
References Cited
Appendix A. Hydrology, Water-Quality, and Trace-Element Data

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Send questions or comments about this report to the author, Ben W. Kennedy, (907) 474-2323.

For more information about USGS activities in Alaska, visit the USGS USGS Alaska Science Center home page.

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