PITTSBURG — The long history of mining in Southeast Kansas left its mark not only on the landscape but on local water quality as well, although remediation efforts in recent years have helped to make some improvements.

Now a Pittsburg State University professor and his students are working to determine whether improved water quality is allowing aquatic animal populations to bounce back.

With help from a grant from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, aquatic ecologist and PSU Professor James Whitney is conducting “a comparison study over time and also across space” to look at fish and aquatic invertebrate populations in the Spring River, which was heavily impacted by mining in the 19th and 20th centuries, and in the Neosho River, which was not.

“Back in the 1990s there was a study done that compared the Neosho River, just to the west, to the Spring River here in Southeast Kansas and what it found was that there were lower fish population sizes and fewer macroinvertebrates in the Spring River than there was compared to the Neosho River,” Whitney said, “and they attributed that to the legacy of mining on the Spring River and that pollution keeping fish and macroinvertebrates depressed in the Spring River.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment monitors river water quality, Whitney noted, “and you can look at those trends since the ‘90s and what you see on things like lead, cadmium and zinc, is there’s this gradual decline in their concentrations in the Spring River, and so water quality has gotten quite a bit better in the last 30 years.”

The Office of Surface Mining and the Environmental Protection Agency have done a lot of mining remediation work in Southeast Kansas, Whitney said, which could explain why water quality has gotten better over time. Whitney’s team — which includes PSU graduate student Kali Boroughs, PSU undergraduate Josh Holloway and Alexandra King, who has graduated from PSU and is now looking into potentially pursuing a master’s degree — is essentially attempting to repeat the study of the two rivers from the 1990s.

Whitney’s study began this May and is planned to continue next year.

“We’ve been finding lots of fish in the Spring River,” he said, “so it seems like they’re doing pretty well in the Spring River.”

Excessive wet weather, however, has prevented work from moving forward as quickly as Whitney would like.

“We’ve gotten some of the research done but we haven’t really done much of a comparison yet just because we haven’t done a lot of sampling yet on the Neosho River yet because the flows have been up so high because of so much rainfall,” he said.

Whitney said that in addition to the numbers of fish his team finds, the species found in each river could also be indicators of water quality.

“There’s definitely some fishes that are more sensitive than others,” he said. “Some groups that are kind of indicative of good water quality would be things like darters, some of the minnows, some of the chubs, and also some of the smaller catfishes called madtoms. If we see quite a few of those, that would be a good sign of better water quality, whereas more things like sunfishes or mosquitofish, that kind of stuff would be indicative of more tolerant fish.”

Whitney said there are potential dangers associated with eating fish caught in the Spring River.

“There are definitely advisories posted on the Spring River by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment,” he said. “Every once in a while might not be an issue, but regularly probably would not be a good idea.”

Whether those advisories will eventually be removed if it’s found that water quality has substantially improved will be up to KDHE, Whitney said. As for his own study of fish and invertebrate populations, there are still many questions to answer.

“Water quality has gotten better in the Spring River but it’s far from being pristine or anything, so even though a lot of these metals have been cut in half like lead and zinc, they’re still elevated relative to what they probably were before any mining went on,” Whitney said. “So on the one hand we’d expect this positive response, just because water quality has gotten better, but on the other hand it’s still not great water quality, so maybe it hasn’t improved enough yet to actually see a response. Those are kind of our two competing hypotheses.”