Ground-water recharge in the arid and semiarid southwestern United States

Professional Paper 1703

Edited by:
David A. Stonestrom ORCID iD , Jim Constantz , Ty P. A. Ferré , and Stanley A. Leake



Ground-water recharge in the arid and semiarid southwestern United States results from the complex interplay of climate, geology, and vegetation across widely ranging spatial and temporal scales. Present-day recharge tends to be narrowly focused in time and space. Widespread water-table declines accompanied agricultural development during the twentieth century, demonstrating that sustainable ground-water supplies are not guaranteed when part of the extracted resource represents paleorecharge. Climatic controls on ground-water recharge range from seasonal cycles of summer monsoonal and winter frontal storms to multimillennial cycles of glacial and interglacial periods. Precipitation patterns reflect global-scale interactions among the oceans, atmosphere, and continents. Large-scale climatic influences associated with El Niño and Pacific Decadal Oscillations strongly, but irregularly, control weather in the study area, so that year-to-year variations in precipitation and ground-water recharge are large and difficult to predict. Proxy data indicate geologically recent periods of naturally occurring multidecadal droughts unlike any in the modern instrumental record. Any anthropogenically induced climate change will likely reduce ground-water recharge through diminished snowpack at higher elevations. Future changes in El Niño and monsoonal patterns, both crucial to precipitation in the study area, are highly uncertain in current models. Current land-use modifications influence ground-water recharge through vegetation, irrigation, and impermeable area. High mountain ranges bounding the study area—the San Bernadino Mountains and Sierra Nevada to the west, and the Wasatch and southern Colorado Rocky Mountains to the east—provide external geologic controls on ground-water recharge. Internal geologic controls stem from tectonic processes that led to numerous, variably connected alluvial-filled basins, exposure of extensive Paleozoic aquifers in mountainous recharge areas, and distinct modes of recharge in the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range subregions.

The chapters in this professional paper present (first) an overview of climatic and hydrogeologic framework (chapter A), followed by a regional analysis of ground-water recharge across the entire study area (chapter B). These are followed by an overview of site-specific case studies representing different subareas of the geographically diverse arid and semiarid southwestern United States (chapter C); the case studies themselves follow in chapters D–K. The regional analysis includes detailed hydrologic modeling within the framework of a high-resolution geographic-information system (GIS). Results from the regional analysis are used to explore both the distribution of ground-water recharge for mean climatic conditions as well as the influence of two climatic patterns—the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and Pacific Decadal Oscillation—that impart a high degree of variability to the hydrologic cycle. Individual case studies employ a variety of geophysical and geochemical techniques to investigate recharge processes and relate the processes to local geologic and climatic conditions. All of the case studies made use of naturally occurring tracers to quantify recharge. Thermal and geophysical techniques that were developed in the course of the studies are presented in appendices.

The quantification of ground-water recharge in arid settings is inherently difficult due to the generally low amount of recharge, its spatially and temporally spotty nature, and the absence of techniques for directly measuring fluxes entering the saturated zone from the unsaturated zone. Deep water tables in arid alluvial basins correspond to thick unsaturated zones that produce up to millennial time lags between changes in hydrologic conditions at the land surface and subsequent changes in recharge to underlying ground water. Recent advances in physical, chemical, isotopic, and modeling techniques have fostered new types of recharge assessments. Chemical and isotopic techniques include an increasing variety of environmental tracers that are useful and robust. Physically based techniques include the use of heat as a tracer and computationally intensive geophysical imaging tools for characterizing hydrologic conditions in the unsaturated zone. Modeling-based techniques include spatially distributed water-budget computations using high-resolution remotely sensed and ground-based geographic data. Application of these techniques to arid and semiarid settings in the southwestern United States reveals distinct patterns of recharge corresponding to geologic setting, climatic and vegetative history, and land use. Analysis of recharge patterns shows that large expanses of alluvial basin floors are drying out under current climatic conditions, with little to no recharge to underlying ground water. Ground-water recharge occurs mainly beneath upland catchments in which thin soils overlie permeable bedrock, ephemeral channels in which flow may average only several hours per year, and active agricultural areas. The chapters in this professional paper represent a coordinated attempt to develop a better understanding of one of the Nation's most critical yet difficult-to-quantify renewable resources.

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Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Ground-water recharge in the arid and semiarid southwestern United States
Series title:
Professional Paper
Series number:
Version 1.0
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Arizona Water Science Center
11 Chapters: A-K; 2 Appendices
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