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Quantification of metal loading using tracer dilution and instantaneous synoptic sampling and importance of diel cycling in Leavenworth Creek, Clear Creek County, Colorado, 2012

December 1, 2021

Leavenworth Creek, a tributary of South Clear Creek and Clear Creek near Georgetown, Colorado, contains copper, lead, and zinc at concentrations close to or in excess of aquatic-life standards. In the summer of 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, conducted monitoring to (1) quantify the effects of diel cycling and perform synoptic sampling in a way to minimize those effects, (2) separate “point” or distinct single tributaries or sources of load from diffuse load sources along the study reach to aid remediation planning, and (3) quantify metal loading from transmountain diversion of water from Peru Creek through the Vidler Tunnel into Leavenworth Creek. The study included monitoring for diel cycles in June 2012 and diel and synoptic sampling in August 2012 along an approximately 2-kilometer stream reach. Synoptic samples were collected at 26 stream and 35 inflow, tributary, mine waste seep, and mine tunnel sites from August 28 to 30, 2012.

In June 2012, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH showed strong diel signals at two sites in Leavenworth Creek, with temperature and pH having minimum values near dawn and maximum values during the afternoon and dissolved oxygen having maximum values in the early morning and minimum values in late afternoon. Concentrations of zinc, cadmium, cobalt, manganese, and yttrium showed strong diel fluctuations at both sites with minimum concentrations during daytime and maximum concentrations during nighttime. Because of these diel cycles, all stream sites were sampled during synoptic sampling at 1200 hours on August 30, 2012. During synoptic sampling from August 28 to 30, 2012, zinc showed maximum concentrations at nighttime and minimum concentrations at midday and diel variation ranged from 26 to 33 percent.

Inflows from the Wilcox Tunnel and Waldorf seep area were the greatest source of zinc load to the stream (about 45 percent), and a left-bank inflow in the dispersed tailings area was the greatest source of lead (about 45 percent) and manganese (about 25 percent) loads to the stream, and a secondary source for zinc (about 40 percent). Copper load was almost equally divided (about 35 percent) between these two sources. Diffuse loading, likely from left-bank sources, was evident for copper, lead, manganese, and zinc in the stream reach from approximately 800 to 1,200 meters, and for copper, lead, and, to a lesser extent, manganese in the reach containing left-bank dispersed tailings (from approximately 1,300 to 1,800 meters). The load values reported herein are minimum estimates because the stream synoptic samples were collected at 1200 hours when positively charged elements, including copper, lead, manganese, and zinc, have minimum concentrations. Diel patterns measured for zinc during the synoptic sampling indicate maximum daily zinc loads were as much as 33 percent greater than those measured at 1200 hours on August 30, 2012.

Transmountain diversion of water through Vidler Tunnel negatively affects water quality in Leavenworth Creek as indicated by much greater metal loads and concentrations and a visually evident mixing zone where Vidler Tunnel water joins Leavenworth Creek when diversion is active compared to when it is not.