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Stream restoration is critical for mine reclamation

July 05, 2023

By Paul Kos and Chris Jaros

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. 

The Alamosa River in Colorado was experiencing increased erosion and unnatural sediment deposition. To mitigate this, our team constructed hydraulic structures along the bank to manage high flows.

Benefits of a naturally restored stream

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. 

The natural stream design at Idlewood Creek, near Kitchener, Ontario, reestablished fish passage and channel stability for low- and high-flow conditions. Top photo is before restoration and the bottom photo is after.

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.

Sounds great, but at what cost?

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.

Our work at Holden Mine included groundwater collection and treatment, along with restoration to reestablish vegetation consistent with that of the surrounding forest. Now, the Holden Mine area and the adjacent forest can start the healing process, growing toward a greener future in Washington.

Components of a restored stream

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:

  • Low-flow channel: It’s key to concentrate seasonal low flows in the low-flow channel to provide a continuous water path. This channel usually meanders through the floodplain to limit channel gradient.
  • Riffle-pool sequence: Riffle-pool sequences create aquatic habitats with riffles on straight segments and pools at bends. Both habitat types are necessary for fish and insects to propagate. These structures also provide gradient control on slopes up to 5 percent.
  • Floodplains: When there is more water than the stream can hold, it enters the floodplain. Even higher flows may reach overflow areas above the floodplain. This is natural in a resilient riparian ecosystem. The greater flow area and vegetation helps decrease flow velocities and limits erosion.
  • Boulder walls or vegetated soil lifts: Sometimes the site topography may need small sections of armoring. But the choices extend beyond riprap. Boulder walls or vegetated soil lifts can provide support and integrate with the natural landscape.
  • Vegetation: Choose a diverse seed and plant mixture that mimics the nearby natural stream setting. Riparian plant species thrive where water is present. They flourish on floodplains, tolerate high water tables, and provide erosion resistance. Plants create shade and help control stream temperatures. They also promote biodiversity by providing habitat for both land and aquatic animals and insects.
  • Fish passage: Fish ladders are sections of stream built to help fish navigate upstream where there are steep slopes and high velocities. Without help, those fish may not access important breeding habitat. In many parts of the US, new projects include some kind of fish and aquatic life component. These enhancements can take many forms depending on the swimming ability of the native fish. 

Fish passage considerations are becoming more popular in many new restoration projects. Some states, like Washington, are requiring fish passage in infrastructure projects.

Another big benefit: carbon capture

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.

It’s the right thing to do

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.

  • Paul Kos

    As a senior geological engineer, Paul’s wide range of experience allows him to recommend proven solutions for a variety of site challenges—this ranges from landslide mitigation to creating a fish habitat in a restored stream.

    Contact Paul
  • Chris Jaros

    Chris provides expertise in stream restoration, surface water quantity and quality modeling, environmental impact assessments, and regulatory compliance in floodplain management, and hazardous materials projects.

    Contact Chris
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