Consistent declines in aquatic biodiversity across diverse domains of life in rivers impacted by surface coal mining.
The rivers of Appalachia (United States) are among the most biologically diverse freshwater ecosystems in the temperate zone and are home to numerous endemic aquatic organisms. Throughout the Central Appalachian ecoregion, extensive surface coal mines generate alkaline mine drainage that raises the pH, salinity, and trace element concentrations in downstream waters. Previous regional assessments have found significant declines in stream macroinvertebrate and fish communities after draining these mined areas. Here, we expand these assessments with a more comprehensive evaluation across a broad range of organisms (bacteria, algae, macroinvertebrates, all eukaryotes, and fish) using high-throughput amplicon sequencing of environmental DNA (eDNA). We collected water samples from 93 streams in Central Appalachia (West Virginia, United States) spanning a gradient of mountaintop coal mining intensity and legacy to assess how this land use alters downstream water chemistry and affects aquatic biodiversity. For each group of organisms, we identified the sensitive and tolerant taxa along the gradient and calculated stream specific conductivity thresholds in which large synchronous declines in diversity were observed. Streams below mining operations had steep declines in diversity (-18 to -41%) and substantial shifts in community composition that were consistent across multiple taxonomic groups. Overall, large synchronous declines in bacterial, algal, and macroinvertebrate communities occurred even at low levels of mining impact at stream specific conductivity thresholds of 150-200 µS/cm that are substantially below the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aquatic life benchmark of 300 µS/cm for Central Appalachian streams. We show that extensive coal surface mining activities led to the extirpation of 40% of biodiversity from impacted rivers throughout the region and that current water quality criteria are likely not protective for many groups of aquatic organisms.
Simonin, M; Rocca, JD; Gerson, JR; Moore, E; Brooks, AC; Czaplicki, L; Ross, MRV; Fierer, N; Craine, JM; Bernhardt, ES
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