This study compares the results of two regional steady-state U.S. Geological Survey Modular Three-Dimensional Finite-Difference Ground-Water Flow (MODFLOW) models constructed to quantify the hydrologic changes in the St. Louis River Basin from iron mining on the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota. The U.S. Geological Survey collaborated in this study with bands of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to inform management decisions about aquatic resources in the St. Louis River Basin. A model constructed and calibrated to represent average 1995–2015 mining conditions produced regional groundwater heads and flows. A pre-mining scenario model was constructed from this mining model but had the land and bedrock surfaces restored to pre-mining topographies and had modeled mining features (mine pits, tailings basins, waste-rock piles, and mining-disturbed areas) eliminated to represent general pre-mining stratigraphy and hydrogeology. Many of the features important to the hydrology of this mining area (like individual mine pits) are difficult to represent in groundwater models and required the use of modeling tools to indirectly account for their effects. The difference between the results of these two models represents mining’s effects on the hydrology in the Mesabi Iron Range area of the St Louis River Basin. The mining and pre-mining regional models also can provide boundary conditions and initial properties for future local or site-specific groundwater-flow models in the area.
Total groundwater flow through the mining model is 171 million cubic feet per day. Areal recharge is the largest source of groundwater (78 and 81 percent of total groundwater flow in the mining and pre-mining scenario models, respectively). Seepage from streams and lakes provides another 17 percent of the total groundwater flow through both models. Water leaves aquifers through seepage to streams (discharge as base flow, 43 percent in both models) and areal seepage to the land surface (surface seepage), for example to wetlands (45 and 49 percent, mining and pre-mining scenario models respectively).
Comparison of the results from the mining and pre-mining scenario models shows that iron mining has produced measurable hydrologic changes in the St. Louis River Basin, but that most of those changes and the highest magnitude changes occur near the mining features. Flow changes to and from surface-water bodies like streams and wetlands were analyzed in detail because of their importance in sustaining surface waters and aquatic life. Overall, groundwater flow in the mining model was 3.62 million cubic feet per day (2.2 percent) greater than total pre-mining model groundwater flow. This was caused by an increase in recharge from tailings basins and a decrease in discharge from surface seepage. Groundwater discharge to mine pits was the largest change in groundwater flows between the models (a change representing 2.8 percent of total pre-mining model groundwater flow). Net recharge to groundwater from tailings basins (2.4 percent), net decrease in surface seepage from groundwater (2.7 percent), and net increase in seepage to streams (1.0 percent) were all in this same range of total pre-mining model groundwater flow. Groundwater lost through mine-pit withdrawals was nearly offset by groundwater gained through recharge from tailings basins. However, because losses and gains occurred in different areas, the effect of mining can have more substantial effects on local areas than the model-wide averages represent.
|Title||Hydrologic change in the St. Louis River Basin from iron mining on the Mesabi Iron Range, northeastern Minnesota|
|Authors||Timothy K. Cowdery, Anna C. Baker, Megan J. Haserodt, Daniel T. Feinstein, Randall J. Hunt|
|Publication Subtype||USGS Numbered Series|
|Series Title||Scientific Investigations Report|
|Record Source||USGS Publications Warehouse|
|USGS Organization||Upper Midwest Water Science Center|