Water resources and potential hydrologic effects of oil-shale development in the southeastern Uinta Basin, Utah and Colorado

Professional Paper 1307




Proposed oil-shale mining in northeastern Utah is expected to impact the water resources of a 3,000-square-mile area. This report summarizes a comprehensive hydrologic investigation of the area which resulted in 13 published reports. Hydrologic information obtained during 1974-80 was used to evaluate the availability of water and to evaluate potential impacts of an oil-shale industry on the water resources.

The study area is the southeastern part of the Uinta Basin, Utah and Colorado, where the hydrology is extremely variable. The normal annual precipitation averages 11 inches and varies with altitude. It ranges from less than 8 inches at altitudes below 5,000 feet along the White and Green Rivers to more than 20 inches where altitudes exceed 9,000 feet on the Roan Plateau.

The White and Green Rivers are large streams that flow through the area. They convey an average flow of 4.3 million acre-feet per year from outside drainage areas of about 34,000 square miles, which is more than 150 times as much flow as that originating within the area. Streams originating in areas where precipitation is less than 10 inches are ephemeral. Mean annual runoff from the study area is about 28,000 acre-feet and ranges from less than 0.1 to 1.6 inches, depending on the location. At any given site, runoff varies greatly-from year to year and season to season. Potential evapotranspiration is large, exceeding precipitation in all years.

Three major aquifers occur in the area. They are alluvial deposits of small areal extent along the major stream valleys; the bird's-nest aquifer of the Parachute Creek Member of the Green River Formation, which is limited to the central part of the study area; and the Douglas Creek aquifer of the Douglas Creek Member of the Green River Formation, which underlies most of the area. Total recoverable water in storage in the three aquifers is about 18 million acre-feet. Yields of individual wells and interference between wells limit the maximum practical withdrawal to about 20,000 acre-feet per year.

An oil-shale industry in the southeastern Uinta Basin with a peak production of 400,000 barrels of oil per day would require a water supply of about 70,000 acre-feet per year. Sources of water supply considered for such an industry were: diversion from the natural flow of the White River, a proposed reservoir on the White River, diversion from the White River combined with proposed off-stream storage in Hells Hole Canyon, diversion from the Green River, and conjunctive use of ground and surface water.

The proposed reservoir on the White River would trap about 90 percent of the sediment moving in the river and in turn would release almost sediment-free water. Possible impacts are changes in channel gradient in the downstream 18 miles of the White River and changes in bank stability. In some parts of the area, annual sheet-erosion rates are as great as 2.2 acre-feet per square mile but sediment yield to the White River is less than might be expected because the runoff is small. If process water from retort operations or water used in the construction of surface facilities is discharged into a normally dry streambed, increased channel erosion and sediment in tributary streams could result in increased sediment loads in the White River. In addition, sediment yields from retorted-shale piles with minimum slopes could exceed 0.1 acrefoot per square mile during a common storm. Thus, without safeguards, the useful life of any proposed reservoir or holding pond could be decreased considerably.

Leachate water from retorted-shale piles has large concentrations of sodium and sulfate, and the chemical composition of retort waters differs considerably from that of the natural waters of the area. The retort waters contain a greater concentration of dissolved solids and more organic carbon and nutrients. Without proper disposal or impoundment of retort and leachate waters, the salinity of downstream waters in the Colorado River Basin would be increased.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Water resources and potential hydrologic effects of oil-shale development in the southeastern Uinta Basin, Utah and Colorado
Series title:
Professional Paper
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Government Printing Office
Publisher location:
Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s):
Utah Water Science Center
iv, 32 p.
United States
Colorado, Utah
Other Geospatial:
Uinta Basin