Largo Canyon, located in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico, is one of the longest dry washes in the world. Oil and gas production in the San Juan Basin, which began in the 1940's, required the development of an extensive network of dirt roads to service the oil and gas wells in the Navajo Reservoir area. Presently, there are about eight wells per square mile, and the density of oil and gas wells is expected to increase. Potential environmental effects on landscape stability that may result from the additional roads and well pads have not been documented. In 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey began a study in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management to evaluate the effects of roads and well pads associated with oil and gas operations on the erosion potential of Bureau of Land Management lands in the Largo Canyon watershed.
The effects of roads and well pads on erosion were quantified by installing sediment dams (dams) and by surveying transects across roads and well pads. Data from 26 dams were used in the analysis. Dams were installed at 43 sites: 21 on hillsides upslope from roads or pads to measure erosion from hillslopes, 11 at the downslope edges of roads to measure erosion from roads, and 11 at the downslope edges of well pads to measure erosion from well pads. Pairs of survey transects were established at nine well pads and two road locations.
Sediment-accumulation data for 26 dams, recorded at 17 measurement intervals, indicate that average erosion rates at the dams significantly correlate to size of the contributing area. The average erosion rate normalized by drainage area was 0.001 foot per year below roads, 0.003 foot per year on hillslopes, and 0.011 foot per year below well pads. Results of a two-sample t-test indicate that there was no significant difference in average erosion rates for dams located on hillslopes and below roads, whereas average erosion rates were significantly greater for dams below well pads than for dams on hillslopes and dams below roads.
The average erosion rates estimated from the data collected during this study most likely represent minimum erosion rates. Sediment-accumulation data for measurement intervals and for dams that were breached during 2002, resulting from the large volume of runoff generated by high-intensity storms, were not used to compute erosion rates. For this reason, the higher range of erosion rates is underrepresented and the results of this study are biased toward the lower end of the range of erosion rates.
Measurements along road transects generally indicate that sediment is eroded from the top of road berms and redeposited at the base of the berms and may be transported downslope along the road. Measurements along well-pad transects generally indicate that sediment eroded from hillslopes is transported over the surface of the well pad and down the well-pad edges.
Based on field observations, roads aligned parallel to topographic contours facilitate erosional processes in two ways: (1) roads cut across and collect runoff from previously established drainages and (2) roads, where they are cut into hillsides or into the land surface, provide focal points for the initiation of erosion. Roads aligned across topographic contours can serve as conduits to channel runoff but do not constitute a large percentage of the road network.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Effects of roads and well pads on erosion in the Largo Canyon watershed, New Mexico, 2001-02