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Effects of coalbed natural gas development on fish assemblages in tributary streams of the Powder and Tongue rivers

Freshwater biology 2010 v.55 no.12 pp. 2612-2625
alkalinity, aquatic ecosystems, cages, correlation, drought, fish, ions, monitoring, natural gas, rivers, species diversity, streams, surveys, total dissolved solids, water quality, watersheds, wells
1. Extraction of coalbed natural gas (CBNG) often results in disposal of large quantities of CBNG product water, which may affect aquatic ecosystems. We evaluated the effects of CBNG development on fish assemblages in tributary streams of the Powder and Tongue rivers. We used treatment and control, impact versus reference sites comparisons, surveys of CBNG product‐water streams and in situ fish survival approaches to determine if CBNG development affected fish assemblages. 2. Several of our results suggested that CBNG development did not affect fish assemblages. Species richness and index of biotic integrity (IBI) scores were similar in streams with and streams without CBNG development, and overall biotic integrity was not related to the number or density of CBNG wells. Fish occurred in one stream that was composed largely or entirely of CBNG product water. Sentinel fish survived in cages at treatment sites where no or few fish were captured, suggesting that factors such as lack of stream connectivity rather than water quality limited fish abundance at these sites. Fish species richness did not differ significantly from 1994 to 2006 in comparisons of CBNG‐developed and undeveloped streams. Biotic integrity declined from 1994 to 2006; however, declines occurred at both impact and reference sites, possibly because of long‐term drought. 3. Some evidence suggested that CBNG development negatively affected fish assemblages, or may do so over time. Specific conductivity was on average higher in treatment streams and was negatively related to biotic integrity. Four IBI species richness metrics were negatively correlated with the number or density of CBNG wells in the catchment above sampling sites. Bicarbonate, one of the primary ions in product water, was significantly higher in developed streams and may have limited abundance of longnose dace (Rhinichthys cataractae). Total dissolved solids, alkalinity, magnesium and sulphate were significantly higher in developed streams. 4. Biological monitoring conducted before the development of CBNG, and continuing through the life of development and reclamation, together with data on the quantity, quality and fate of CBNG product water will allow robust assessment of potential effects of future CBNG development worldwide.