Effects of clay discharges on streams
- Cite this article as:
- Davies-Colley, R.J., Hickey, C.W., Quinn, J.M. et al. Hydrobiologia (1992) 248: 215. doi:10.1007/BF00006149
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Placer gold-mining on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand provided a field test-bed for investigating the impacts of fine inorganic suspensoids (clays) on streams not subjected to other abuses. The suspensions of clays (40% between 0.55 and 1 µm in diameter) seeping into the streams from gold mines were colloidally stable. The clay particles attenuated light in the streamwater with near maximum efficiency leading to severe degradation of stream optical quality. Turbidity increased from a median of 2.4 NTU upstream often to > 100 NTU (median 15 NTU) downstream. The stream waters, which were strongly-coloured by humic substances, were changed from a dark organge colour to a bright ‘muddy’ appearance downstream of mining, and visual clarity was reduced from a few metres to as low as 0.03 m (median 0.33 m). The clay discharges decreased light penetration into the stream water such that irradiance averaged over a 12 hr photoperiod at the bed (typically about 0.3 m depth in runs at baseflow) fell from about 340 µE m−2 s−1 upstream to as low as 80 µE m−2 s−1 (median 190 µE m−2 s−1) at matched downstream sites. This reduction in light proportionally reduced benthic primary productivity downstream of the mining activity. In turn this reduced benthic algal biomass and lowered the phototrophic content of the epilithon. In spite of their extremely low settling velocities (< 1 µm s−1) some clay particles were deposited on the stream bed owing to entrapment in the epilithon matrix. This decreased the organic content of the epilithon (from an average of 19% upstream to 8.5% downstream) so reducing its quality as food for invertebrate animals.