Quantifying seepage using heat as a tracer in selected irrigation canals, Walker River Basin, Nevada, 2012 and 2013

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5133

Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation



The Walker River is an important source of water for western Nevada. The river provides water for agriculture and recharge to local aquifers used by several communities. Farmers began diverting water from the Walker River in the 1860s to support growing agricultural development. Over time, the reduced inflows into Walker Lake from upstream reservoirs and diversions have resulted in 170 feet of lake level decline and increased dissolved-solids concentrations to levels that threaten aquatic ecosystems, including survival of Lahonton cutthroat trout, a native species listed in the Endangered Species Act. Investigations of the water-budget components in the Walker River Basin have revealed uncertainty in the recharge to aquifers from irrigation canals. To address this need, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted an extensive field study from March 2012 through October 2013 to quantify seepage losses in selected canals in the Smith Valley, Mason Valley, and Walker Lake Valley irrigation areas.

The seepage rates estimated for the 2012 and 2013 irrigation seasons in the Smith Valley transect sites (Saroni and Plymouth canals) ranged between 0.01 to 2.5 feet per day (ft/d) (0.01 to 0.68 cubic feet per second per mile [ft3/s-mi]). From 2012 to 2013, the average number of days the canals had flowing water decreased from 190 to 125 due to drier climate and lack of water available for diversion from the Walker River. The nearly 50-percent reductions in volumetric loss rates between 2012 and 2013 were associated with less than average diversions into canals from the Walker River and reductions in infiltration rates following routine canal maintenance.

Models developed for the Saroni canal in 2012 were recalibrated in 2013 to evaluate changes in seepage as a result of siltation. Just prior to the 2012 irrigation season, nearly the entire length of the canal was cleared of vegetation and debris to improve flow conveyance. In 2013, following the first year of maintenance, a 90-percent reduction in seepage was observed at one of the transect sites. The removal of sediment-clogged layers during canal maintenance may have more profound effects on seepage rates beyond what was observed at the transect sites. The seepage rates for the Saroni canal in 2012 ranged from 0.02 to 1.6 ft/d (0.03 to 0.4 ft3/s-mi). The total seepage loss in the Saroni canal for the 2012 and 2013 irrigation seasons was estimated to be 1,100 and 590 acre-feet (acre-ft), respectively.

Seepage rates on the Plymouth canal in Smith Valley in 2012 were among the lowest, ranging from 0.01 to 0.2 ft/d (0.01 to 0.1 ft3/s-mi). In 2013, the seepage rate on the Plymouth canal was similar to 2012; however, the volumetric loss was reduced by 50 percent due to the 50-percent reduction in number of canal flow days. Lower rates of seepage on the Plymouth canal for the 2012 and 2013 irrigation seasons were estimated to be 210 and 130 acre-ft, respectively.

The seepage rates estimated for the 2012 and 2013 irrigation seasons in the Mason Valley transect sites (Fox, Mickey, and Campbell ditches) ranged from 0.1 to 3.3 ft/d (0.2 to 1.3 ft3/s-mi). The influence of water-table declines on seepage was observed at the Mickey and Campbell ditches. In 2012, the estimated seepage on the Mickey ditch was 1.6 ft/d during a period when the water-table altitude was at or above the canal altitude. Following extensive declines in the water table, the hydraulic gradient increased between the canal and the shallow aquifer, thereby increasing the seepage rates to 3.2 ft/d in 2013. During the period of hydraulic disconnection, seepage rates increased to 9.5 ft/d during intermittent periods of canal flow. For the Mickey ditch, the seepage loss in 2013 was 1.5 times the rate estimated in 2012 despite the canal having 45 days less flow. Similarly, the Campbell ditch seepage loss increased slightly from 660 to 700 acre-ft, a factor of 1.1, with 49 days less flow. The seepage loss for the Fox ditch did not exhibit significant year to year variability. The annual seepage loss estimated for 2012 and 2013 in the Fox ditch was 2,100 and 2,200 acre-ft, respectively.

The seepage rates estimated for the 2013 irrigation season in the Walker Lake Valley transect sites (Schurz Lateral Canals 1A and 2A, and Canal 2) ranged from 0.7 to 0.9 ft/d (0.4 to 1.3 ft3/s-mi). In Walker Lake Valley, diversions into Lateral Canals 1A and 2A during the 2013 irrigation season were highly intermittent, a characteristic common of lateral diversions. The annual estimated seepage loss in Walker Lake Valley ranged between 50 and 725 acre-ft among the transect sites.

Suggested Citation

Naranjo, R.C., and Smith, D.W., 2016, Quantifying seepage using heat as a tracer in selected irrigation canals, Walker River Basin, Nevada, 2012 and 2013: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5133, 169 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods of Investigation
  • Seepage Estimation Using Heat as a Tracer and Inverse Modeling (VS2DH)
  • Modeling Results
  • Seepage Estimates
  • Seepage Rate Comparisons
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Appendixes 1–6

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Quantifying seepage using heat as a tracer in selected irrigation canals, Walker River Basin, Nevada, 2012 and 2013
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Nevada Water Science Center
Report: viii, 169 p.; 2 Appendixes
United States
California, Nevada
Other Geospatial:
Walker River Basin
Online Only (Y/N):