The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the New Mexico Environment Department, is investigating the pre-mining ground-water chemistry at the Molycorp molybdenum mine in the Red River Valley, northern New Mexico. The primary approach is to determine the processes controlling ground-water chemistry at an unmined, off-site, proximal analog. The Straight Creek drainage basin, chosen for this purpose, consists of the same quartz-sericite-pyrite altered andesitic and rhyolitic volcanic rock of Tertiary age as the mine site. The weathered and rugged volcanic bedrock surface is overlain by heterogeneous debris-flow deposits that interfinger with alluvial deposits near the confluence of Straight Creek and the Red River. Pyritized rock in the upper part of the drainage basin is the source of acid rock drainage (pH 2.8-3.3) that infiltrates debris-flow deposits containing acidic ground water (pH 3.0-4.0) and bedrock containing water of circumneutral pH values (5.6-7.7).
Eleven observation wells were installed in the Straight Creek drainage basin. The wells were completed in debris-flow deposits, bedrock, and interfingering debris-flow and Red River alluvial deposits. Chemical analyses of ground water from these wells, combined with chemical analyses of surface water, water-level data, and lithologic and geophysical logs, provided information used to develop an understanding of the processes contributing to the chemistry of ground water in the Straight Creek drainage basin.
Surface- and ground-water samples were routinely collected for determination of total major cations and selected trace metals; dissolved major cations, selected trace metals, and rare-earth elements; anions and alkalinity; and dissolved-iron species. Rare-earth elements were determined on selected samples only. Samples were collected for determination of dissolved organic carbon, mercury, sulfur isotopic composition (34S and 18O of sulfate), and water isotopic composition (2H and 18O) during selected samplings. One set of ground-water samples was collected for helium-3/tritium and chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) age dating.
Several lines of evidence indicate that surface water is the primary input to the Straight Creek ground-water system. Straight Creek streamflow and water levels in wells closest to the apex of the Straight Creek debris fan and closest to Straight Creek itself appear to respond to the same seasonal inputs. Oxygen and hydrogen isotopic compositions in Straight Creek surface water and ground water are similar, and concentrations of most dissolved constituents in most Straight Creek surface-water and shallow (debris-flow and alluvial) aquifer ground-water samples correlate strongly with sulfate (concentrations decrease linearly with sulfate in a downgradient direction). After infiltration of surface water, dilution along the flow path is the dominant mechanism controlling ground-water chemistry. However, concentrations of some constituents can be higher in ground water than can be accounted for by concentrations in Straight Creek surface water, and additional sources of these constituents must therefore be inferred.
Constituents for which concentrations in ground water can be high relative to surface water include calcium, magnesium, strontium, silica, sodium, and potassium in ground water from debris-flow and alluvial aquifers and manganese, calcium, magnesium, strontium, sodium, and potassium in ground water from the bedrock aquifer. All ground water is a calcium sulfate type, often at or near gypsum saturation because of abundant gypsum in the aquifer material developed from co-existing calcite and pyrite mineralization. Calcite dissolution, the major buffering mechanism for bedrock aquifer ground water, also contributes to relatively higher calcium concentrations in some ground water. The main source of the second most abundant cation, magnesium, is probably dissolution of magnesium-rich carbonates or silicates. Strontium may also be