Hydrogeology and potential effects of changes in water use, Carson Desert agricultural area, Churchill County, Nevada

Open-File Report 93-463

Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation
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Operating Criteria and Procedures established in 1988 for delivery of water for irrigation in the Newlands Project area include regulations and methods to increase Project efficiency. Public Law 101-618 of 1990 includes a target of 75-percent Project efficiency and a program of water-rights acquisition for wetlands maintenance. The directives could result in large reductions in water used for irrigation in the Carson Desert, potentially affecting ground-water supplies. Previous studies of the area have been evaluated to determine the current understanding of how aquifers are recharged, what controls the flow and quality of ground water, potential effects of changes in water use, and what additional information would be needed to quantify further changes in water use.

Inflow of surface water to the basin from Lahontan Reservoir averaged about 370,000 acre-ft/yr (acre-feet per year) from 1975 to 1992, supplying water for irrigation of more than 50,000 acres. More than half of the water released from the reservoir is lost to seepage, operational spills, and evaporation before delivery of about 170,000 acre-ft/yr to farm headgates. The volume of water delivered to farms that does not contribute to crop consumptive use (on-farm loss) is poorly known but could be as much as 60,000 acre-ft/yr. Consumptive use on irrigated land may be about 180,000 acre-ft/yr, of which 50,000 acre-ft/yr may be derived from the shallow aquifer. Outflow from irrigated land is a mixture of operational spill, runoff from irrigated fields, and ground-water seepage to drains. Total outflow averages about 170,000 to 190,000 acre-ft/yr. This water flows to wetlands at Carson Lake, Stillwater Wildlife Management Area, and Carson Sink.

Three sedimentary aquifers were previously defined in the basin: a shallow aquifer having highly variable lithology and water quality, an intermediate aquifer containing principally fresh water, and a deep aquifer having water of poor quality. The deep aquifer could possibly be divided into sedimentary and volcanic zones. In addition, a near-surface zone may exist near the top of the shallow aquifer where vertical flow is inhibited by underlying clay beds. A basalt aquifer near the center of the basin is the source of public supply and is recharged by the shallow, intermediate, and deep aquifers. Water levels in the basalt aquifer have declined about 10 feet from pre-pumping levels, and chloride and arsenic concentrations in the water have increased. The average depth to ground water has decreased beneath large areas of the Carson Desert since 1904 as a result of recharge of surface water used for irrigation. Ground water generally flows from west to east, and dissolvedsolids concentrations increase greatly near areas of ground-water discharge, where State of Nevada drinking-water standards commonly are exceeded.

Uncertainties in the rates of recharge to and discharge from the basin cause an imbalance in the calculated water budget. Estimates for total recharge range from 400,000 to 420,000 acreft/yr, whereas estimates for discharge range from 630,000 to 680,000 acre-ft/yr. Estimates of inflow to and outflow from aquifers of the study area are as follows: shallow aquifer, more than 120,000 acre-ft/yr; intermediate aquifer, possibly more than 25,000 acre-ft/yr; deep aquifer, unknown; and basalt aquifer, about 4,000 acre-ft/yr. Estimates for flow volumes to and from the shallow and intermediate aquifers are based on assumed aquifer properties and could be in error by an order of magnitude or more.

Conceptual models of the basin show that ground-water flow is downward from the shallow aquifer to the intermediate aquifer in the western part and near the center of the basin, and is upward in the eastern part of the basin. Little is known about flow in the deep aquifer. Nearsurface clay beds inhibit vertical flow near the center and eastern part of the basin except where breached by relict sand-filled channels of the Carson River. 

Conceptual models of the basin show that changes in water use in the western part of the basin probably would affect recharge to the sedimentary and basalt aquifers. Near the center of the basin, water-use changes could affect the shallow and basalt aquifers but might have less effect on the intermediate aquifer. In the eastern part of the basin, changes could affect the shallow aquifer, but would probably not affect the intermediate or basalt aquifers.

If seepage is decreased by lining canals, and land is removed from production, water-level declines in the shallow aquifer could be greater than 10 feet as far as 2 miles from the lined canals. Depending upon the distribution of specific yield, decreasing recharge by 25,000 to 50,000 acre-ft/yr beneath 30,000 acres could cause water levels to decline from 4 to 17 feet. Where ground water supplements crop consumptive use, water levels could temporarily rise when land is removed from production. Where water is pumped from a near-surface zone of the shallow aquifer, water-level declines might not greatly affect pumped wells where the nearsurface zone is thickest, but could cause wells to go dry where the zone is thin.

The understanding of surface-water and ground-water relations, recharge and discharge of ground water, ground-water movement, and the potential effects of changes in water use in the Carson Desert can be refined by studying (1) the extent of potable water in the intermediate and basalt aquifers, (2) lithology and specific yield of aquifer materials, (3) data on ground-water levels and quality, and (4) data on surface-water flow and quality, as well as monitoring the effects of changes in water use as they take place.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Hydrogeology and potential effects of changes in water use, Carson Desert agricultural area, Churchill County, Nevada
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Report: ix, 101 p.; 3 Plates: 28.70 x 31.65 inches or smaller
United States
Churchill County
Other Geospatial:
Carson Desert