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Category: Water Level Data

Data on water levels at the Berkeley Pit and surrounding monitoring points.

This September 2014 photo from Google Earth shows the Berkeley Pit and the surrounding area.

Water level rising more slowly than originally projected

This September 2014 photo from Google Earth shows the Berkeley Pit and the surrounding area.
Click on the image to view a larger version.

Since the Berkeley Pit was designated as a Superfund site in the 1980s, things have gone largely as expected. In one instance the site remedy has proceeded at a faster pace than mandated in the 1994 Record of Decision (or ROD, available in its entirety here).

The ROD called for the water treatment plant for the Pit to be designed 8 years before the water level at any monitoring compliance point reached the Critical Level of 5,410 feet above sea level, and completed 4 years prior. In fact, the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant was completed in 2003, 20 years before water is expected to reach the Critical Level.

Water level modeling has also been accurate. The Pit water level has risen more slowly than originally predicted due to several factors, most notably the capture and treatment of contaminated surface water flowing in from Horseshoe Bend. This water is treated and reused in Montana Resources mining operations, with no water discharged offsite.

The 1994 ROD included projections that estimated that the water level in the Pit would be at 5,204 feet above sea level in 2000; 5,353 feet in 2010; and 5,417 feet in 2015. With a water level of just 5,326.01 feet recorded on August 5, 2015, the Pit water level is nearly 100 feet below early predictions.

The 1994 model also anticipated a rate of fill of about 5-6 million gallons per day. With surface inflow captured, treated, and reused, the average rate has been much lower, about 2.6 million gallons per day. The model currently used by the Bureau of Mines and Geology uses monitoring data to project the filling rate, and over the past 5 years the model’s projections have varied by only a few months.

Some surprises have occurred over the years. For example, the 1994 ROD projected that the water level in the Anselmo mineshaft would be the highest in the Pit system. That was the case until the past several years, when the water level in the Pilot Butte shaft overtook it. Since then the highest water level is typically recorded at the Pilot Butte mine, which was at 5,351.11 as of August 5, 2015.

At 58.89 feet below the Critical Level, it is likely that the Pilot Butte water will hit the critical point first, triggering full implementation of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant. This is currently projected to happen in July 2023, a few months later than projected in the last edition of Pit Watch in 2013.

The water level in the Berkeley Pit in 2013, compared to the Critical Water Level. Current projections show that the water level in one of the monitoring compliance points around the Pit, such as the Pilot Butte or Anselmo mine shafts, will reach the critical level around 2023, triggering pumping-and-treating of Pit water to maintain its level below the critical point. Photo by Ted Duaime of the Montana Department of Mines & Geology.

Current and Critical Water Level Comparison

The 2013 print edition of PitWatch included the following photo from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology (MBMG), intended to show the current water level relative to the Critical Water Level.

The water level of the Berkeley Pit in 2012, compared to the Critical Water Level for the Berkeley Pit system. Image from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.
The water level of the Berkeley Pit in 2012, compared to the Critical Water Level for the Berkeley Pit system.

Some PitWatch readers asked for a version of this image that used a current photo of the Berkeley water level, and MBMG created this new image to better illustrate the current and critical levels.

The water level in the Berkeley Pit in 2013, compared to the Critical Water Level. Current projections show that the water level in one of the monitoring compliance points around the Pit, such as the Pilot Butte or Anselmo mine shafts, will reach the critical level around 2023, triggering pumping-and-treating of Pit water to maintain its level below the critical point. Photo by Ted Duaime of the Montana Department of Mines & Geology.
The water level in the Berkeley Pit in 2013, compared to the Critical Water Level. Current projections show that the water level in one of the monitoring compliance points around the Pit, such as the Pilot Butte or Anselmo mine shafts, will reach the critical level around 2023, triggering pumping-and-treating of Pit water to maintain its level below the critical point. Photo by Ted Duaime of the Montana Department of Mines & Geology.

Under the management plan for the Berkeley Pit, the water level in the Pit itself will never reach that critical level. Because water levels in some of the compliance monitoring points around the Pit are consistently higher than the level in the Pit itself, it is extremely likely that water at one of those monitoring points (such as the Pilot Butte or Anselmo mine shafts) will reach the critical level while the Berkeley Pit water level is still several feet below it. When the water level at any compliance point reaches the critical level (current projections put this time at 2023), pumping-and-treating of Berkeley Pit water will begin, maintaining the level in the Pit below the critical level.

The water level of the Berkeley Pit in 2012, compared to the Critical Water Level for the Berkeley Pit system. Image from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.

What is the Critical Water Level (CWL)?

The water level of the Berkeley Pit in 2012, compared to the Critical Water Level for the Berkeley Pit system. Image from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.
The water level of the Berkeley Pit in 2012, compared to the Critical Water Level for the Berkeley Pit system.

Set by the U.S. EPA and Montana DEQ, the Critical Water Level, 5,410 feet, marks the point where full-scale pumping and treating of Berkeley Pit water will begin. The level represents the lowest level in the Butte Basin, the stream bottom of Silver Bow Creek. It was set to prevent any contamination from moving into surface and groundwater.

The critical level applies to all of the monitoring compliance points around the Pit, including the mine shafts and wells shown in “Monitoring locations and water levels” below. The Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology regularly checks water levels at all of these points. When the water level in any one of these places reaches 5,410 feet, Pit water will be pumped and treated to maintain the water level at or below the critical level. As you can see in “Water levels over time” at right, currently the highest water level is at the Pilot Butte mine. At 5,335 feet, water in the Pilot Butte will have to rise 75 feet before it reaches the critical level.

Based on the rate the water is rising, scientists expect the water to reach the critical level around 2023. The Critical Level includes a safety buffer of at least 50 feet. In other words, Pit water would not spread until the water level reached about 5,460 feet.

Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Click on the image to view a larger version.

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43 billion gallons and counting: Where does it come from?

Water in the Berkeley Pit rising over time, 1979-2013. Photos from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology, Justin Ringsak, and Fritz Daily.

When ARCO suspended underground pumping operations in 1982, groundwater levels on the Butte Hill began to rise. Nineteen months later the water level in the underground workings and surrounding bedrock reached the bottom of the Pit, allowing bedrock groundwater to start filling the Pit void.

The Berkeley Pit in 1982. The water seen here is surface runoff flowing into the Leonard mine shaft to the right at the Pit bottom.
The Berkeley Pit in 1982. The water seen here is surface runoff flowing into the Leonard mine shaft to the right at the Pit bottom.

Prior to that time alluvial groundwater seeped into the Pit from the east and south walls, beginning to fill the Pit lake. ARCO also diverted water from its mining operations (leach pad water, Continental Pit, Horseshoe Bend, etc.) into the Pit following the 1983 shutdown of their entire Butte operations.

When Montana Resources began operations in 1986 a number of these surface water sources were diverted away from the Pit, however, the Horseshoe Bend water continued to flow into the Pit until April 1996 when it was incorporated in Montana Resource’s mining operations for treatment and disposal in the Yankee Doodle Tailings Dam.

When Montana Resources suspended mining operations from 2000 through 2003, about 7.5 billion gallons of water, or an average of 6 million gallons per day, went into the Pit. Of this total, an average of 3.4 million gallons per day came from rising groundwater flows in the underground mine workings and surface stormwater flow. An average of 2.6 million gallons per day came from the Horseshoe Bend drainage. Montana Resources also diverted water from the Continental Pit into the Berkeley Pit for containment during their suspension.

Since the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant began operating in 2003, water flows from the Horseshoe Bend drainage have been diverted to the treatment plant. After treatment, this Horseshoe Bend water is entirely recycled or consumed in mining operations, or, in other words, no water is discharged off of the site.

About 2.6 million gallons per day from groundwater and stormwater still flow into the Pit, contributing to the rising level there. Eventually, when the water level approaches the Critical Level of 5,410 feet above sea level, water will be pumped from the Berkeley Pit and treated at the Horseshoe Bend facility. Present projections put this date around 2023. Having the plant in place provides assurance that the capability to manage Berkeley Pit water levels is there when it becomes necessary to treat Pit water.

This 2006 image from the NASA Earth Observatory shows the Berkeley Pit and surrounding area after the construction of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant and after the resumption of mining at the Continental Pit.
This 2006 image from the NASA Earth Observatory shows the Berkeley Pit and surrounding area after the construction of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant and after the resumption of mining at the Continental Pit.

Have the monitoring efforts revealed any surprises?

Yes. One involves changes in bedrock Well H. The water level of this well is usually about 10 feet above the level of the Berkeley Pit, just like other bedrock wells nearby. But one July, Well H’s level started falling, and by September it had dropped about 3 ½ feet. Meanwhile, the Pit kept rising. From December through February, the water levels of the Pit and Well H were just inches apart. Well H is now gaining on the Pit again.

What is the significance of the surprise reading in Well H? It appears to be an isolated incident caused by underground subsidence (shifting of dirt) adjacent to the well. Well H is southeast of the Pit in the middle of the old Pittsmont Mine workings, where the ground is known to be unstable. The water levels in all of the surrounding bedrock wells remain high, indicating that flow is still toward the Pit. It is important to look at the monitoring well system as a whole, rather than focus solely on the performance of a single well.

And Well H is not the only surprise to date. In 1989, the water level in the Kelley shaft dropped two feet in one month, but it, too, recovered. Well DDH-5 also occasionally fluctuates. The monitoring program was set up specifically to detect changes like these. When something unusual turns up, monitoring is heightened at that spot, and scientists determine what action, if any, needs to be taken. At Well H, water levels have been checked weekly since October. On February 18, a special camera was lowered 927 feet into the well to look for abnormalities, and none were found.

Future years will bring many more monitoring well changes, especially in the area between the Berkeley and Continental Pits.

How much water evaporates off the surface of the Pit?

According to Montana Resources, about twice as much water evaporates off the surface of the Pit each year than enters the Pit through rain and snow. About 12 inches of precipitation fall into the Pit each year, and about 23.65 inches evaporate, for an annual net loss from evaporation of roughly 11.65 inches. This water balance translates into an annual average of about 20,000 gallons per day of evaporating water.

Does this Critical Water Level apply only to the Pit?

No. Pumping and treating of Pit water must begin when the 5,410-foot level is reached at ANY of the water-level monitoring compliance sites on the Hill, in what is called the East Camp. These sites include the Anselmo, Granite Mountain, Kelley, Belmont, and Steward mine shafts, as well as several other monitoring wells established to the south and the east of the Pit.

Presently, the water level at these sites is about 20-40 feet higher than the level in the Pit. So, the 5,410-foot level should be reached sooner at these sites than in the Pit, which means water pumping and treating would begin that much sooner.