Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies, Volume 39

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Elsevier BV
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The hydrochemical evolution of a constructed peatland in a post-mining landscape six years after construction
Kelly Biagi | Sean K. Carey

Reclamation of wetlands, including peatlands, is legally required in the Athabasca oil sands region following bitumen extraction via surface mining which leaves large open pits that are backfilled with saline tailings waste. Six years of hydrochemical data (2013 – 2018) from the Sandhill Fen Watershed (SFW), a 52-ha upland-peatland catchment that was built upon highly saline soft tailings, were used to evaluate salinity and ion patterns and provide insight on its trajectory. In general, electrical conductivity (EC) increased throughout SFW from 1) reduced inflow and outflow, 2) changes in water table positions and 3) increased mixing of site-wide waters. Salinity has increased site-wide over time as EC increased by an average of 1585 and 2313 µS/cm in the wetland and margins, respectively from 2013 to 2018. The uplands were the only region where EC declined by 1747 µS/cm over the six years. There is also evidence of mixing with underlying tailings waste (Na-Cl dominant) as the chemical composition of SFW waters shifted from largely Ca-dominant in 2013 (> 90%) to Na-dominant by 2018 (> 70%). Based on its current conditions, SFW cannot support freshwater peat-forming bryophytes and is most chemically similar to naturally occurring saline fens. A shift in design strategies is recommended (replicating saline instead of freshwater peatlands) to increase the success of these systems. Changes in site-wide average annual electrical conductivity (µS/cm) from 2013 to 2018. • Electrical conductivity (EC) and Na+ increased site-wide from 2013 to 2018. • Decreased inflow and outflow increased EC and ion accumulation. • Higher water tables diluted wetland EC and increased margin EC (ion mobilization). • Increased mixing with tailings waste shifted waters from Ca +2 to Na + dominant. • Waters have become similar to brackish marshes and saline fens.