Reconnaissance study of the thickness of the unsaturated zone in the western conterminous United States

Hydrologic Atlas 715




In 1984, the U.S. Geological Survey began a study of the geologic and hydrologic characteristics of the unsaturated zone in the western conterminous United States. The study area extends from the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains westward and includes all or parts of the 12 westernmost conterminous States. The goal of the study is to characterize unsaturated flow systems to aid in identifying environments in the western United States that may merit further study for isolation of hazardous waste, including high- and low-level radioactive waste and other toxic waste.
The major physiographic areas discussed in this report (see index map below thickness map) are: (1) Rocky Mountain System consisting of the Southern, Middle, and Northern Rocky Mountains, and the Wyoming Basin; (2) Intermontane Plateaus consisting of the Basin and Range province, and the Colorado and Columbia Plateaus; and (3) Pacific Mountain System (Fenneman, 1946). Two of these areas, the Colorado and Columbia plateaus, exhibit a variety of geohydrologic conditions, and therefore are further subdivided in the discussions that follow.
Outstanding features peculiar to the mountainous area of the Rocky Mountain and the Pacific Mountain Systems are the high rugged mountains and steep relief. These mountains receive greater precipitation than do the lower parts of the otherwise dry western United States. Generally moisture-laden air masses move eastward across the continent, and the mountains force them to higher, cooler altitudes. As the air cools, moisture condenses and precipitates. As a result, the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Mountain Systems have annual precipitation in excess of 30 in.
The Wyoming Basin of the Rocky Mountain System and the Basin and Range province, Colorado Plateaus, and Columbia Plateaus of the Intermontane Plateaus generally have lower altitudes and less relief than do the mountainous areas. The climate throughout most of these provinces generally is semiarid to arid. Annual precipitation is generally less than 16 in. throughout most of the area, and is less than 4 in. in some parts. The mean annual free-water-surface evaporation ranges from 20 to 100in. A large part of the study area is subject to a water deficit because potential evapotranspiration exceeds precipitation. As a consequence of the large water deficit, ground-water recharge generally is small, surface runoff is small, perennial streams and lakes are few, and the depth to ground water commonly is large. The generalized thickness of the unsaturated zone (the depth to ground water), in the western conterminous United States is presented on the map.

Study Area

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Reconnaissance study of the thickness of the unsaturated zone in the western conterminous United States
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Hydrologic Atlas
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1 map :col. ;101 x 76 cm., on sheet 106 x 107 cm., folded in envelope 30 x 24 cm.
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