Ground-water investigations of the Project Gnome area, Eddy and Lea Counties, New Mexico

Open-File Report 62-29




The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, through the Office of Test Operations, Albuquerque Operations Office, plans to detonate a nuclear device in a massive salt bed 1,200 feet beneath the land surface. The project, known as Project Gnome, is an element of the Plowshare program--a study of peacetime applications of nuclear fission. The location of the proposed underground shot is in a sparsely-populated area in southeastern Eddy County, N. Mex., east of the Pecos River and about 25 miles southeast of the city of Carlsbad. The area is arid to Semiarid and ground water is a vital factor in the economic utilization of the land, which is primarily used for stock raising. An investigation of the Project Gnome site and surrounding area for the purposes of evaluating the ground-water resources and the possible effect upon them from the detonation of the nuclear shot was desired by the Commission. This report describes work done by the U.S. Geological Survey on behalf of the Commission and presents results of the investigation of the ground-water resources and geology of the area. The most intensive investigations were made within a 15-mile radius of the site of Project Gnome and mainly on the east side of the Pecos River. The total area of study of over 1,200 square miles includes parts of Eddy and Lea Counties, N. Mex. The Project Gnome site is in the sedimentary Delaware Basin. It is underlain by about 18,000 feet of sedimentary rocks ranging in age from Ordovician to Recent. Upper Permian evaporitic rocks, which contain the principal source of potash available in the United States, are worked in nearby mines. The potash minerals are found in a massive salt bed about 1,400 feet thick in the Salado Formation of Permian age. The land surface of the area is covered mostly by a wind-blown sand and caliche; however, rocks of the Rustler Formation of Permian age and younger rocks of Permian, Triassic, Pleistocene(?) and Recent age crop out at several localities. Solution by ground water of salt at the top of the Salado Formation and of anhydrite within the Rustler Formation has removed thick sections of these rocks. A subsequent lowering of the land surface and differential collapse of the Rustler has formed many sinkholes and has created a karst topography over much of the western part of the area. Ground water is obtained from rocks of Permian, Triassic, Tertiary, and Quaternary age in the general region. However, the only aquifer at the Gnome site is the Culebra Dolomite Member of the Rustler Formation of Permian age. The aquifer is about 500 feet beneath the surface at the site and is about 30 feet thick. An aquifer, immediately above the top of the salt, contains a brine solution in Nash Draw, a few miles west of the Gnome site. This aquifer discharges into the Pecos River and is a major source of contamination of the river water. No potable water is known to be present in the area below the top of the salt of the Salado Formation. The ground water in the area is generally under artesian pressure. The general direction of ground-water movement is toward the Pecos River both east and west of the river. At the Gnome site the artesian head of the water in the Culebra Dolomite Member is about 7.5 feet. The water moves westward through the aquifer at a rate of about ? foot per day. The most widespread utilization of ground water east of the river is for stock use. Irrigation usage west of the Pecos River accounts for the largest withdrawal of water. Wells range in depth from a few tens of feet to nearly 800 feet. Water levels range from a few feet to about 500 feet below the surface. A test well at the Gnome site drawing water from the Culebra Dolomite Member was pumped at a rate of 100 gpm (gallons per minute); however, most wells east of the river yield only a few gpm. Irrigation wells west of the river yield as much as 3,500 gpm. Most of the water in the area is highly mineralized and is suitable only for use by livest

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Ground-water investigations of the Project Gnome area, Eddy and Lea Counties, New Mexico
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Open-File Report
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67 p.