Chemical and biological monitoring of muskeg drainage at the Alsands project site. Volume II: Monitoring and fish studies

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  • Volume I of this report reviewed the publicly available literature on stream environments in the Muskeg River basin as background to the monitoring studies. This volume (Volume II) describes the results of the studies, discusses their effectiveness, and makes suggestions about the design of similar monitoring programs that might be established in future in the AOSERP area. The 1980 monitoring studies were intended to both monitor the effects of Alsands' muskeg drainage on aquatic habitats and terrestrial vegetation, and to form the basis of a long-term program to monitor the effects of the Alsands development on aquatic habitats in the Muskeg River over the life of the project. The long-term, routine monitoring program was to be designed based on the experience with the 1980 studies, which would test methods and examine the suitability of various biological parameters for biomonitoring. To meet these objectives, a variety of biological and water quality attributes were studied within the zones of potential impact and in control areas. Measures of water quality, such as suspended solids, dissolved oxygen, major ion, metal and nutrient concentrations, were studied to obtain direct information on physical and chemical impacts at the time of sampling. Periphytic algae and benthic macroinvertebrates were sampled by several methods to detect the biological effects of physical and chemical changes in water quality. Biological monitoring had the potential of detecting impacts that occurred prior to sampling, and provided a direct measure of biological damage, usually the matter of greatest human concern. Benthic invertebrates were selected for study because they are commonly rated as the most generally useful group for biomonitoring (eg Hellawell 1977). Periphytic algae were sampled because they could be particularly useful for monitoring the effects of nutrient loading and turbidity (Hellawell 1977). A fish sampling program was conducted in conjunction with the monitoring studies to supplement available life history information on species inhabiting the Muskeg River basin. Previous studies on the fish fauna of the drainage (reviewed in Volume I) showed that Hartley Creek and the Muskeg River, at and below the Alsands development area, provide spawning and rearing habitat for Arctic grayling and two species of suckers. In addition, yearly grayling may overwinter in the lower Muskeg River, several species of small fish reside in the watershed year-round and small numbers of other large species (eg northern pike) use the watershed for at least part of the year. One de f i c i en c yin the available baseline data on fish populations in the Muskeg River drainage is the lack of information on overwintering locations, and on the distribution and numbers of spawners, eggs, fry and juveniles at specific locations and times. Without such data, only very large changes in the fish populations could be detected during routine monitoring studies. A second deficiency in the available data is that the importance of the river as Arctic grayling habitat has not been adequately quantified. Angling results indicate the summer population density is larger than spring trapping results have suggested (Bond and Machniak 1979). Despite two attempts, Bond and Machniak (1977, 1979) did not obtain a complete count of the number of Arctic grayling entering the Muskeg River in spring. Because the fish had begun their migration prior to break-up, a counting fence could not be installed in time. Their 1978 attempt to count grayling as the fish moved out of the river in the fall was thwarted by high water. The 1980 fish studies were conducted in an attempt to provide some of this missing baseline information. Specifically, the objectives of the fish studies were: 1. To locate and describe overwintering areas of yearling Arctic grayling and, if possible, to quantify (as catch per unit effort or direct counts) the importance of each site to the population; 2. To locate and quantify the importance of spawning and rearing areas of suckers and grayling; 3. To monitor and enumerate downstream migrant fish, particularly grayling, in the fall; 4. To survey small fish populations in the Muskeg River in the fall and early winter; and 5. To determine, if possible, the effects of Alsands' activities in 1980 on the relative abundance, distribution, and fall migrations of Muskeg River fish, from a comparison of the 1980 results to previously-reported results. In the winter of 1979-80, as part of the requirements for approval of drainage ditch construction, Alberta Environment requested Alsands to develop a monitoring program to assess the impact of the two drainage ditches on neighbouring lands and receiving bodies of water. Prior to removal of the peat and initiation 'of construction of the Alsands mining and processing complex, extensive muskeg areas, including ponds, would need to be drained. The two points of discharge would be the proposed tailings pond area and the Muskeg River area about 1 km south of Alsands' temporary camp. Hardy Associates (1978) Ltd. was contracted to assess the impact of the discharged water on vegetation and wildlife habitat. The purpose of their investigation was two-fold: 1. To determine the extent and type of vegetation damage; and 2. To define the short and long-term effects of flooding and siltation on vegetation. This report presents the methods that were used to carry out the study, the results of the field observations, and the conclusions made.

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