The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, selected the upper part of Mortandad Canyon near Los Alamos, New Mexico for a site for disposal of treated liquid low-level radioactive waste. This report summarizes the part of a study of the geology and hydrology that was done from October 1960 through June 1961. Additional work is being continued.
Mortandad Canyon is a narrow east-southeast-trending canyon about 9? miles long that heads on the central part of the Pajarito Plateau at an altitude of about 7,340 feet. The canyon is tributary to the Rio Grande. The drainage area of the part of Mortandad Canyon that was investigated is about 2 square miles, and the total drainage area is about 4.9 square miles.
The Pajarito Plateau is capped by the Bandelier Tuff of Pleistocene age. Mortandad Canyon is cut in the Bandelier, and alluvium covers the floor of the canyon to depths ranging from less than 1 foot to as much as 100 feet. The Bandelier is underlain by silt, sand, conglomerate, and interbedded basalt of the Santa Fe Group of Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene(?) age. Some ground water is perched in the alluvium in the canyon; however, the top of the main aquifer is in the Santa Fe Group at a depth of about 990 feet below the canyon floor.
Joints in the Bandelier Tuff probably were caused by shrinkage of the tuff during cooling. The joints range in width from hairline cracks to fissures several inches wide. Water can infiltrate along the open joints where the Bandelier is at the surface; however, soil, alluvial fill, and autochthonous clay inhibit infiltration on the tops of mesas and probably in the alluvium-floored canyons also.
Thirty-three test holes, each less than 100 feet deep, were drilled in 10 lies across Mortandad Canyon from the western margin of the study area to just west of the Los Alamos-Santa Fe County line. Ten of the holes were cased for observation wells to measure water levels and collect water samples from the alluvium. Twenty-three of the holes were cased to seal out water and were used as access tubes to accommodate a neutron-neutron probe for determining the moisture content of the alluvium and tuff.
The source of recharge for the perched ground-water body in the alluvium in Mortandad Canyon is the precipitation in the drainage area of the canyon. During the winter of 1960-61, a snowpack 1-2 feet thick accumulated in the narrow shaded upper part of the canyon. The alluvium below the snowpack received some recharge because of diurnal melting during the winter. In March 1961 the snowmelt water saturated most of the thin alluvium in the upper part of the canyon, and a surface stream began to flow on the alluvium. The maximum flow of the stream was about 250 gpm (gallons per minute). Water from the stream infiltrated the alluvium at the front of the stream and in the reach upstream from the front. A ground-water mound was formed beneath the channel by water infiltrating from the stream. The front of the stream and the front of the ground-water mound advanced eastward to about the middle of the area studied. From this point eastward, the alluvium was thick enough to absorb and transmit the amount of flow in 1961. Late in April the front of the stream retreated, and by the first of May the flow stopped. During and after this period the ground-water mound decayed, and ground-water levels declined in the upper part of the canyon as water drained into the channel and downgradient through the alluvium.
The amount of recharge was small in the wide lower part of the canyon during the period of study. The rise in ground-water levels and the increase in moisture content of the alluvium in the lower part of the canyon indicate that water moved downgradient by underflow through the alluvium from the recharge area in the upper part of the canyon. Moisture measurements indicate that only a little water moved into the underlyin
Additional Publication Details
USGS Numbered Series
Preliminary report on the geology and hydrology of Mortandad Canyon near Los Alamos, New Mexico, with reference to disposal of liquid low-level radioactive waste