The upper Humboldt River basin encompasses 4,364 square miles in northeastern Nevada, and it comprises the headwaters area of the Humboldt River. Nearly all flow of the river originates in this area. The upper Humboldt River basin consists of several structural basins, in places greater than 5,000 feet deep, in which basin-fill deposits of Tertiary and Quaternary age and volcanic rocks of Tertiary age have accumulated. The bedrock of each structural basin and adjacent mountains is composed of carbonate and clastic sedimentary rocks of Paleozoic age and crystalline rocks of Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic age. The permeability of bedrock generally is very low except for carbonate rocks, which can be very permeable where circulating ground water has widened fractures through geologic time.
The principal aquifers in the upper Humboldt River basin occur within the water-bearing strata of the extensive older basin-fill deposits and the thinner, younger basin-fill deposits that underlie stream flood plains. Ground water in these aquifers moves from recharge areas along mountain fronts to discharge areas along stream flood plains, the largest of which is the Humboldt River flood plain. The river gains flow from ground-water seepage to its channel from a few miles west of Wells, Nevada, to the west boundary of the study area.
Water levels in the upper Humboldt River basin fluctuate annually in response to the spring snowmelt and to the distribution of streamflow diverted for irrigation of crops and meadows. Water levels also have responded to extended periods (several years) of above or below average precipitation. As a result of infiltration from the South Fork Reservoir during the past 20 years, ground-water levels in basin-fill deposits have risen over an area as much as one mile beyond the reservoir and possibly even farther away in Paleozoic bedrock.