How much do valley fills influence headwater streams?

Valley fill mining has the potential to alter headwater stream habitat in many areas in the eastern United States. In valley fill mining, overburden is removed to expose underlying coal seams. The overburden is then deposited in the adjacent valley. The deposited overburden from mining increases sedimentation, increases stream conductivity, and alters hydrologic regimes downstream of the fill. Changes in downstream communities are not well documented. However, it was suspected the increased sedimentation and conductivity would have deleterious effects upon the downstream macroinvertebrate communities. In southern West Virginia, four pairs of streams, each consisting of a fill and a reference stream, were selected as representative of watersheds experiencing valley fill mining. Stream pairs were selected for similar environmental conditions, with one stream having a valley fill in its headwaters. Each stream was sampled by replicate Surber samples (n=9 per stream). Water chemistry and sediment measurements also were taken at each location. Valley fill streams experienced significantly higher specific conductance (p < 0.01), but did not have elevated levels of fine sediment. Fills exhibited elevated levels of Na, K, Mn, Mg, Ca, Ni and Fe relative to reference streams. Additionally, valley fill streams demonstrated significantly lower densities of Ephemeroptera, Coleoptera, Odonata, Non-insects, Scrapers, and Shredders (p < 0.03) than reference streams. Further, Ephemeroptera richness was negatively related to specific conductivity and many of the richness metrics were negatively related to metals, both of which were generally elevated in fill streams. It appears that at the minimum, valley fills increase specific conductance and metals in streams and this or some other unqualified factors structure the macroinvertebrate community downstream of the valley fill. However, given the level of disturbance in valley fills, it is surprising how little differences existed between fills and reference stream biota.

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