Multiple injected and natural conservative tracers quantify mixing in a stream confluence affected by acid mine drainage near Silverton, Colorado



The acidic discharge from Cement Creek, containing elevated concentrations of dissolved metals and sulphate, mixed with the circumneutral-pH Animas River over a several hundred metre reach (mixing zone) near Silverton, CO, during this study. Differences in concentrations of Ca, Mg, Si, Sr, and SO42− between the creek and the river were sufficiently large for these analytes to be used as natural tracers in the mixing zone. In addition, a sodium chloride (NaCl) tracer was injected into Cement Creek, which provided a Cl ‘reference’ tracer in the mixing zone. Conservative transport of the dissolved metals and sulphate through the mixing zone was verified by mass balances and by linear mixing plots relative to the injected reference tracer. At each of seven sites in the mixing zone, five samples were collected at evenly spaced increments of the observed across-channel gradients, as determined by specific conductance. This created sets of samples that adequately covered the ranges of mixtures (mixing ratios, in terms of the fraction of Animas River water, %AR). Concentratis measured in each mixing zone sample and in the upstream Animas River and Cement Creek were used to compute %AR for the reference and natural tracers. Values of %AR from natural tracers generally showed good agreement with values from the reference tracer, but variability in discharge and end-member concentrations and analytical errors contributed to unexpected outlier values for both injected and natural tracers. The median value (MV) %AR (calculated from all of the tracers) reduced scatter in the mixing plots for the dissolved metals, indicating that the MV estimate reduced the effects of various potential errors that could affect any tracer. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.