Diurnal cycles control the fate of contaminants at an Andean river confluence impacted by legacy mining

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Paula Alejandra Guerra1, Kyle Simonson1, Carlos Bonilla1,2, Gonzalo E Pizarro1,2, Pablo Pasten1,2, Cristian R Escauriaza1 and Christian González1, (1)Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile, (2)Centro de Desarrollo Urbano Sustentable, Santiago, Chile
The importance of hydrologic-geochemical interactions in arid environments is a controlling factor in quality and quantity of water available for human consumption and agriculture. When acid drainage affects these watersheds, water quality is gravely degraded. Despite its effect on watersheds, the relationship between time changes in hydrological variables and water quality in arid regions has not been studied thoroughly. Temporal variations in acid drainage can control when the transport of toxic elements is increased.

We performed field work at the Azufre River (pH 2, E.C~10.9 mS/cm) and Caracarani River (pH 8.7, E.C~1.2 mS/cm) confluence, located in the Northern Chilean Altiplano (at 4000 m asl). We registered stream flowrates (total flowrate~430 L/s), temperature and electric conductivity (E.C) hourly using in-stream data loggers during one year. We also measured turbidity and pH during one field survey at different distances from the junction, as a proxy of the formation of iron-aluminum particles that cycle trace elements in these environments. We found turbidity-pH diurnal cycles were caused by upstream hourly changes in upstream flowrate: when the Caracarani River flowrate reached its daily peak, particle formation occurred, while the dissolution of particles occurred when the Azufre River reached its maximum value. This last process occurred due to upstream freeze-thaw cycles. This study shows how the dynamics of natural confluences determines chemical transport. The formation of particles enriched in toxic elements can promote settling as a natural attenuation process, while their dissolution will produce their release and transport long distances downstream. It is important to consider time as an important variable in water quality monitoring and in water management infrastructure where pulses of contamination can have potentially negative effects in its use.

 Acknowledgements: Funding was provided by “Proyecto Fondecyt 1130936” and “CONICYT/FONDAP 15110020”.