Potash mining is significantly increasing the salt concentration of rivers and streams due to lixiviates coming from the mine tailings. In the present study, we have focused on the middle Llobregat basin (northeast Spain), where an important potash mining activity exists from the beginning of the XX century. Up to 50 million tonnes of saline waste have been disposed in the area, mainly composed of sodium chloride. We assessed the ecological status of streams adjacent to the mines by studying different physicochemical and hydromorphological variables, as well as aquatic macroinvertebrates. We found extraordinary high values of salinity in the studied streams, reaching conductivities up to 132.4 mS/cm. Salt-polluted streams were characterized by a deterioration of the riparian vegetation and the fluvial habitat. Both macroinvertebrate richness and abundance decreased with increasing salinity. In the most polluted stream only two families of macroinvertebrates were found: Ephydridae and Ceratopogonidae. According to the biotic indices IBMWP and IMMi-T, none of the sites met the requirements of the Water Framework Directive (WFD; i.e., good ecological status). Overall, we can conclude that potash-mining activities have the potential to cause severe ecological damage to their surrounding streams. This is mainly related to an inadequate management of the mine tailings, leading to highly saline runoff and percolates entering surface waters. Thus, we urge water managers and policy makers to take action to prevent, detect and remediate salt pollution of rivers and streams in potash mining areas.
Potash mining; freshwater salinization; Llobregat basin; ecological status; aquatic macroinvertebrates; biotic indices.