Base flow water in Leavenworth Creek, a tributary to South Clear Creek in Clear Creek County, Colorado, contains copper and zinc at levels toxic to aquatic life. The metals are predominantly derived from the historical Waldorf mine, and sources include an adit, a mine-waste dump, and mill-tailings deposits. Tracer-injection and water-chemistry synoptic studies were conducted during low-flow conditions to quantify metal loads of mining-impacted inflows and their relative contributions to nearby Leavenworth Creek. During the 2-year investigation, the adit was rerouted in an attempt to reduce metal loading to the stream. During the first year, a lithium-bromide tracer was injected continuously into the stream to achieve steady-state conditions prior to synoptic sampling. Synoptic samples were collected from Leavenworth Creek and from discrete surface inflows. One year later, synoptic sampling was repeated at selected sites to evaluate whether rerouting of the adit flow had improved water quality.
The largest sources of copper and zinc to the creek were from surface inflows from the adit, diffuse inflows from wetland areas, and leaching of dispersed mill tailings. Major instream processes included mixing between mining- and non-mining-impacted waters and the attenuation of iron, aluminum, manganese, and othermetals by precipitation or sorption. One year after the rerouting, the Zn and Cu loads in Leavenworth Creek from the adit discharge versus those from leaching of a large volume of dispersed mill tailings were approximately equal to, if not greater than, those before. The mine-waste dump does not appear to be a major source of metal loading. Any improvement that may have resulted from the elimination of adit flow across the dump was masked by higher adit discharge attributed to a larger snow pack. Although many mine remediation activities commonly proceed without prior scientific studies to identify the sources and pathways of metal transport, such strategies do not always translate to water-quality improvements in the stream. Assessment of sources and pathways to gain better understanding of the system is a necessary investment in the outcome of any successful remediation strategy.