The Boulder River watershed is one of many watersheds in the western United States where historical mining has left a legacy of acid mine drainage and elevated concentrations of potentially toxic trace elements. Abandoned mine lands commonly are located on or affect Federal land. Cleaning up these Federal lands will require substantial investment of resources. As part of a cooperative effort with Federal land-management agencies, the U.S. Geological Survey implemented an Abandoned Mine Lands Initiative in 1997. The goal of the initiative was to use the watershed approach to develop a strategy for gathering and communicating the scientific information needed to formulate effective and cost-efficient remediation of affected lands in a watershed. The watershed approach is based on the premise that contaminated sites that have the most profound effect on water and ecosystem quality within an entire watershed should be identified, characterized, and ranked for remediation.
The watershed approach provides an effective means to evaluate the overall status of affected resources and helps to focus remediation at sites where the most benefit will be gained in the watershed. Such a large-scale approach can result in the collection of extensive information on the geology and geochemistry of rocks and sediment, the hydrology and water chemistry of streams and ground water, and the diversity and health of aquatic and terrestrial organisms. During the assessment of the Boulder River watershed, we inventoried historical mines, defined geological conditions, assessed fish habitat, collected and chemically analyzed hundreds of water and sediment samples, conducted toxicity tests, analyzed fish tissue and indicators of physiological malfunction, examined invertebrates and biofilm, and defined hydrological regimes. Land- and resource-management agencies are faced with evaluating risks associated with thousands of potentially harmful mine sites, and this level of effort is not always feasible for every affected watershed. The detailed work described in this report can help Federal land-management agencies decide which characterization efforts would be most useful in characterization of other affected watersheds.