Hydrogeologic analysis of the saturated-zone ground-water system, under Yucca Mountain, Nevada

Journal of Hydrology

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The configuration of the southward-sloping water table under Yucca Mountain is dominated by an abrupt decline of 300 m over a distance of less than 2 km. This northeast-striking zone of large hydraulic gradient (of 0.15 or more) separates an area of moderate gradient (of about 0.015) to the north from an area of very small gradient (0.0001) to the south. The position of the large gradient does not correlate well with any evident geologic feature in the upper 0.5 km of the mountain, but we suggest that buried geologic features are present that can explain all the geohydrologic observations. The three areas of differing hydraulic gradient under Yucca Mountain are parts of hydrogeologic domains that extend more than 70 km to the northeast. On a regional basis, the moderate and very small gradients generally correspond to areas underlain by exceptionally thick Tertiary volcanic sections and a highly transmissive Paleozoic carbonate aquifer, respectively. The regional large gradient and water-table decline are spatially associated with a contact in the Paleozoic rocks between clastic rocks and carbonates. This contact marks a large abrupt drop in the effective base of the hydrologic system because it is the upgradient boundary of the deep carbonate aquifer, which has a thickness of 5 km. An aeromagnetic high follows the regional-scale domain of large gradient under northern Yucca Mountain from outcrops of a magnetite-bearing clastic confining unit to the east, indicating that the regional correlation of the steep water-table decline with the upgradient boundary of the deep carbonate aquifer may extend to Yucca Mountain. Five additional features may be related to an explanation for the large hydraulic gradient: (1) anomalously low heat flow has been measured deep in the volcanic section south of the water-table decline, suggesting underflow of cool water in the deep carbonate aquifer; (2) the lower tuff sequence, of 0.5-1 km in thickness, which underlies most of Yucca Mountain, is largely replaced in the volcanic section by lavas in the area of the large gradient; (3) an analysis of the hydrogeology of the tuff section under Yucca Mountain indicates that transmissivity in the tuffs increases to the south; (4) a northeast-trending gravity low is present immediately south of the water-table decline; (5) units in the lower part of the volcanic section are 50-100% thicker in the area of the gravity low than to the north and south. The abrupt stratigraphic thickening into the area of the gravity low indicates that the low represents a buried graben with its northern bounding fault centered beneath the abrupt water-table decline. These geologic features of the zone of large gradient under Yucca Mountain suggest two possible hydrogeologic models. First, the northern bounding fault of the buried graben may provide a highly permeable pathway (a drain) through the brittle lavas in the lower part of the volcanic section under northern Yucca Mountain. The drain would allow flow from the tuff aquifer north of the decline to be captured by the deep carbonate aquifer, resulting in the heat-flow low, the abrupt water-table decline, and the transition to a very small hydraulic gradient. Alternatively, the northern bounding fault of the buried graben may be the effective northern limit of the tuff aquifer under Yucca Mountain because the permeability in the tuffs north of the fault may have been diminished by hydrothermal alteration. In this second model, the large gradient marks the point where the small southward flow of water through the altered volcanic rocks to the north abruptly drops into the tuff aquifer. In either case, heads in the tuff aquifer in the area of very small gradient may be regulated partly by upward flow from the deep carbonate aquifer. This upward flow under southern Yucca Mountain is indicated by linear thermal highs along fault zones, by ground-water isotopic data suggesting inmixing of waters from the deep carbonate aquifer

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Hydrogeologic analysis of the saturated-zone ground-water system, under Yucca Mountain, Nevada
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Journal of Hydrology
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Journal of Hydrology
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