Natural Acid Drainage in the Upper Alamosa River of Colorado

Posey, Harry H. ; Renkin, Miriam L. ; Woodling, John
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 14
Publication Date: Jan 1, 2000
Natural acid drainage is generated from pyritic rock underlying 17 percent of the upper Alamosa River basin. About one-third of these acid producing rocks have nil carbonate buffering capacity; there the streams carry significant acid plus dissolved Al, Cu, Fe, and Zn. In part of the basin, aquatic life is limited by the natural acid drainage. In the four miles where the Alamosa flows through pyritic rock the river grows toxic to trout. Inhospitable conditions continue downstream for at least another four miles. The waters become refreshed, naturally, through metal dilution, metal oxide and hydroxide precipitation, and acid neutralization. Water quality fluctuates in seasonal cycles. Dissolved metals and acid, which are generated year-round by weathering, are stored over winter in the unsaturated zone in the retained water and in soluble metal- sulfate minerals that form by evaporation of acid-metal waters. Seasonal discharge variations cause metal concentrations and pH to shift in the trunk stream; the acid drainage source streams, however, shift only slightly by season. In early spring, metal concentrations and metal loads increase as metals and acid are flushed from the unsaturated zones by melting snow. Peak metal loads occur at this time, and precede peak flow by up to two months. Other metal load peaks occur during peak flow and monsoon flow, even though metal concentrations are diluted at that time by precipitation. In late spring and thereafter, discharge of neutral pH water wanes, so trunk stream pH falls and metal concentrations return to previous high levels. Metal concentrations appear to be low from November through January when dilution from precipitation is lowest, but rise in February to near peak yearly concentrations. In years with high monsoonal flows, metal-laden waters apparently flush from the unsaturated zone and metal concentrations remain low from about October through January. In years with low monsoonal flows, however, metal concentrations in October and November at least are higher.
Full Article Download:
(616 kb)