Riverbank, or riparian, vegetation provides many ecosystem benefits that keep creeks healthy, including habitat and food for fish and wildlife, shade to cool water temperatures and roots to stabilise banks. Because groundwater likely meets more than half of the dry season needs of riparian vegetation in the Top End, groundwater contamination here could significantly impact riparian vegetation and associated river health.
Weathering of waste rock from the Ranger uranium mine releases contaminants, including magnesium sulfate. These contaminants are washed out by rain and are predicted to move through the local groundwater towards Magela Creek. Depending on the concentration, magnesium sulfate (a salt) has the potential to affect the trees, other plants and ecosystems along riverbanks downstream from the Ranger mine site.
The Ranger uranium mine is due to cease operations in 2021 and be revegetated by 2026. This study is leading to better knowledge of common riparian woody species’ groundwater uptake, and therefore their relative dependence on it, to help predict contaminant impacts and inform mine closure and monitoring. The project is also increasing our understanding of the sensitivity of riparian and forest ecosystems to changes in groundwater levels, which can then be applied to changes caused by other factors such as irrigated agriculture developments or climate change. The work is improving our understanding of surface water–groundwater interactions in similar environments.
This project is:
Fieldwork is taking place at the Ranger uranium mine as well as upstream and downstream of the mine area.
Canham, C.A., Cavalieri, O.Y., Setterfield, S.A. et al. Effect of elevated magnesium sulfate on two riparian tree species potentially impacted by mine site contamination. Sci Rep 10, 2880 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-59390-9
This project is being led by Professor Lindsay Hutley from Charles Darwin University (CDU). Professor Hutley is being assisted by researchers from CDU, The University of Western Australia and the Supervising Scientist Branch of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
Lindsay Hutley, Charles Darwin University