Hydrology of area 59, northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountain coal provinces, Colorado and Wyoming

Open-File Report 85-153

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Hydrologic information and analysis aid in decisions to lease federally owned coal and to prepare necessary Environmental Assessments and Impact Study reports. This need has become even more critical with the enactment of Public Law 95-87, the "Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977." This act requires an appropriate regulatory agency to issue permits, based on the review of permit-application data to assess hydrologic impacts. This report, which partially fulfills this requirement, is one in a series of nationwide coal province reports that present information thematically, through the use of a brief text and accompanying maps, graphs, charts, or other illustrations for single hydrologic topics. The report broadly characterizes the hydrology of Area 59 in north-central Colorado and southeastern Wyoming.

The report area, located within the South Platte River basin, covers a 16,000-square-mile area of diverse geology, topography, and climate. This diversity results in contrasting hydrologic characteristics.

The South Platte River, the major stream in the area, and most of its tributaries originate in granitic mountains and flow into and through the sedimentary rocks of the Great Plains. Altitudes range from less than 5,000 feet to more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Precipitation in the mountains may exceed 40 inches annually, much of it during the winter, and produces deep snowpacks. Snowmelt during the spring and summer produces most streamflow. Transmountain diversion of water from the streams on the western slope of the mountains also adds to the streamflow. Precipitation in the plains is as little as 10 inches annually. Streams that originate in the plains are ephemeral.

Streamflow quality is best in the mountains, where dissolved-solids concentrations are generally small. Concentrations increase in the plains as streams flow through sedimentary basins, and as urbanization and irrigation increase. The quality of some mountain streams is affected by drainage from previous metalmining areas, as indicated by greater trace-element concentrations and smaller pH values. However, the large trace-element concentrations decrease rapidly downstream from the metal-mining areas. Because the climate is semiarid in most of the area, the soils are not adequately leached; therefore, flows in ephemeral streams usually have larger concentrations of dissolved solids than flows in perennial streams.

Ground water is available throughout the area; yields range from less than 0.1 gallons per minute in the fractured granite aquifer in the mountains to more than 2,000 gallons per minute in the alluvial aquifer of the South Platte River valley. Major bedrock aquifers in order of decreasing age are the Laramie-Fox Hills, Arapahoe, Denver, and Dawson; these aquifers are used for municipal, domestic, and livestock supplies. Alluvial aquifers supply the high-yield irrigation wells.

The best quality ground water is found at the center of the major bedrock aquifers, where dissolved-solids concentrations are less than 200 milligrams per liter. The poorest-quality water is usually found near the edges of these aquifers. Water in the coal-bearing Laramie and Denver Formations is locally affected by coal deposits, causing dissolved-solids concentrations to be relatively large.

Only one coal mine is now operating in Area 59, the Coors Energy Company surface coal mine, which produced 100,000 short tons of subbituminous coal from the Upper Cretaceous Laramie Formation in 1982. Past coal-mining operations removed more than 130 million tons of coal and lignite from Area 59,99 percent of which came from underground mines. The largest coal production was in Weld and Boulder Counties, Colorado.

Hydrologic problems related to surface mining are erosion, sedimentation, decline in water levels, disruption of aquifers, and degradation of water quality. Because the semiarid mine areas have very little runoff, and the major streams have large buffer and dilution capacities, the effects of mining on surface water is minimal. However, effects on ground water may be much more severe and long-lasting.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Hydrology of area 59, northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountain coal provinces, Colorado and Wyoming
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
WY-MT Water Science Center
vi, 124 p.
United States
Colorado, Wyoming