Stream restoration is critical for mine reclamation
July 05, 2023
July 05, 2023
Promoting biodiversity and sustainability with mine water management
Mining impacts watersheds. Mines use water in their operations, and great care is required to ensure that water is not harmed. The mining industry can show sustainable water management by restoring streams, wetlands, and woodlands to natural ecosystems. Reclamation promotes biodiversity. And it helps companies get regulatory and social approval. Restoring a natural water system using Nature-based Solutions (NbS) provides habitat for creatures living on land and in the water. It also supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Mine closure and water management regulations in the US were historically based on preventing erosion. As a result, waterways often included hard armoring of the channel. This would include riprap or gabion baskets (a layered rock wall held together with metal wiring). These regulations deterred mine owners from improving their natural capital through stream restoration.
Today, policies allow limited erosion in stream restoration projects. This is great because erosion is a key principle of stream flow. It’s basic to natural stream behavior. Now, waterways can be restored to mimic undisturbed channels in nearby areas.
Most people would agree that reclaiming disturbed areas to a natural state is a good thing. It’s better for the environment and biodiversity. There are other benefits, too.
Responsible mining builds support for future projects. How? A mining company that has shown attention, care, and funding focused on environmental remediation is more attractive in the eyes of investors and the public. Plus, a proven record of responsible mining and environmental care also helps gain trust in communities who are often quick to oppose nearby mining activity.
Support and buy-in is a very real component of today’s mining landscape. Environmental stewardship helps our clients achieve many environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals. Independent reviews can verify these. Mining companies with awards or certifications for their environmental work are less likely to be opposed than those who don’t. Plus, focusing on the “E” of ESG helps with social goals as well—promoting sustainable and healthy communities, environmental justice, and Indigenous relations. Lastly, it supports governance, by demonstrating regulatory compliance and risk management. The more we look at projects through an ESG lens, the easier it becomes to see compounding benefits.
Sometimes, a project supports each component of ESG. For example, the Alamosa River Restoration in Colorado was good for the environment, promoted healthier communities, and achieved regulatory compliance. How? By restoring more than 12,000 linear feet of the river. The project improved the larger watershed beyond the Alamosa River. We saw reduced sediment loading, a stabilized channel, recharged groundwater, and safeguarded infrastructure.
Another good example in Colorado is Four Mile Creek. It supplies water to a few small towns near Boulder, and the watershed had been impacted by previous mining activity.
When our team started work here, the amount of arsenic in the water was over the drinking water standard. Our work included testing waste rock piles to determine what metals were present and removing waste rock from the channel. We also capped remaining waste rock with an evapotranspiration cover to reduce leaching. Finally, we planted vegetation consistent with the surrounding forest.
After the restoration of the main channel and side tributaries, water quality in Ingram Gulch has greatly improved. Now, arsenic levels are below detection limits.
Regardless of the channel type, water management is typically a small percentage of the total reclamation costs at a mine.
Mining is also a business and needs to make money. But, going above and beyond does not always mean more cost.
Regardless of the channel type, water management is typically a small percentage of the total reclamation costs at a mine. The greatest costs are usually slope grading, topsoiling, and vegetation. In other words, adjusting the channel construction costs from hard armor to a natural system has a small impact on the final cost.
When restoring a stream, hydrogeologists use geometry and vegetation for erosion protection. As such, any additional excavation and vegetation may cost less than buying and placing rocks. Maintenance costs are also generally less. This is because a natural stream is a resilient ecosystem through a balance of erosion and sediment deposition. Flooding is mitigated by building a grassy marsh area rather than riprap armoring.
In both the US and Canada, many mining projects may qualify for state and federal tax incentives and low-interest loans to support reclamation work. This is especially true for historic or abandoned mine sites that don’t have an active supply of funding.
Stream restoration doesn’t require a major effort beyond reclamation and monitoring. Initial water treatment and grading is the same for both nature-based and traditional methods. The main difference lies in re-creating a natural ecosystem using:
A benefit that’s getting lots of attention lately is the potential for riparian and wetland areas to sequester carbon. Large swaths of land—especially forested riparian ecosystems—can become carbon sinks as part of a carbon offset program. We’re seeing this in many industrial site closure plans. We anticipate it will increase in popularity as more companies look to secure carbon offsets.
We hope to see natural streams as part of every future mine closure plan. Choosing to restore stream channels as part of your mine reclamation project is the right thing to do.
But it can also make it easier to obtain permits, funding, and community support. It will also help show the mining industry’s commitment to sustainability and our shared water future. If a mine owner is already grading the site to construct a channel, why not go the extra step and create something that mimics a natural stream? It will only benefit us all.