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Geophysics- and geochemistry-based assessment of the geochemical characteristics and groundwater-flow system of the U.S. part of the Mesilla Basin/Conejos-Médanos aquifer system in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, and El Paso County, Texas, 2010–12

Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5028

Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation
By:
https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20175028

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Abstract

One of the largest rechargeable groundwater systems by total available volume in the Rio Grande/Río Bravo Basin (hereinafter referred to as the “Rio Grande”) region of the United States and Mexico, the Mesilla Basin/Conejos-Médanos aquifer system, supplies water for irrigation as well as for cities of El Paso, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. The U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation assessed the groundwater resources in the Mesilla Basin and surrounding areas in Doña Ana County, N. Mex., and El Paso County, Tex., by using a combination of geophysical and geochemical methods. The study area consists of approximately 1,400 square miles in Doña Ana County, N. Mex., and 100 square miles in El Paso County, Tex. The Mesilla Basin composes most of the study area and can be divided into three parts: the Mesilla Valley, the West Mesa, and the East Bench. The Mesilla Valley is the part of the Mesilla Basin that was incised by the Rio Grande between Selden Canyon to the north and by a narrow valley (about 4 miles wide) to the southeast near El Paso, Tex., named the Paso del Norte, which is sometimes referred to in the literature as the “El Paso Narrows.”

Previously published geophysical data for the study area were compiled and these data were augmented by collecting additional geophysical and geochemical data. Geophysical resistivity measurements from previously published helicopter frequency domain electromagnetic data, previously published direct-current resistivity soundings, and newly collected (2012) time-domain electromagnetic soundings were used in the study to detect spatial changes in the electrical properties of the subsurface, which reflect changes that occur within the hydrogeology. The geochemistry of the groundwater system was evaluated by analyzing groundwater samples collected in November 2010 for physicochemical properties, major ions, trace elements, nutrients, pesticides (reported but not used in the assessment), and environmental tracers. The data obtained from these samples (with the exception of the pesticide data) were used to gain insights into processes controlling the groundwater movement through the groundwater system in the study area. Results from the geophysical and geochemical assessments facilitated the interpretation of the geochemical characteristics of the groundwater sources and geochemical groups within the groundwater system.

The groundwater-flow system in the study area consists primarily of the Mesilla Basin aquifer system, which can be divided into four hydrogeologic units by using an informal classification scheme based on basin-fill stratigraphy and sedimentology with an emphasis on aquifer characteristics. The four hydrogeologic units are (1) the Rio Grande alluvium, which is the shallow aquifer of the Mesilla Basin within the confines of the Mesilla Valley, and the three hydrogeologic units that compose the Santa Fe Group: (2) the lower part of the Santa Fe Group, which is the least productive zone, (3) the middle part of the Santa Fe Group, which is the primary water-bearing hydrogeologic unit in the basin and is generally saturated, and (4) the upper part of the Santa Fe Group, which is the most productive water-bearing unit within the Santa Fe Group but is only partially saturated in the north and largely unsaturated in the south and western parts of the Mesilla Basin.

The helicopter frequency domain electromagnetic survey results indicated that approximately half of the resistivity values were less than 10 ohm-meters at depths of 50 and 100 feet with a transition where the resistivity values changed from relatively high values (greater than 20 ohm-meters) to relatively low resistivity values (less than 10 ohm-meters) near Vado, New Mexico. Slightly more than 25 percent of the gridded resistivity values from the three-dimensional grid of the combined inverse modeling results of the direct-current resistivity and time-domain electromagnetic soundings were equal to or less than 10 ohm-meters with large regions of low resistivity becoming apparent in the southernmost part of the study area near the Paso Del Norte where these low resistivity features are spatially the widest at or below the top of the bedrock. These low resistivity values might represent clayey deposits, sediments composed largely of sand and gravel saturated with saline water, or both. Historical dissolved-solids-concentration data within the surface geophysical subset area of the study area were compiled and compared to the inverse modeling results of the combined direct-current resistivity and time-domain soundings; this comparison was done to strengthen the interpretation made from the combined inverse modeling results that the low resistivity features were representative of sand and gravel deposits saturated with saline water and not clayey deposits.

Water-level altitudes within the Rio Grande alluvium generally decreased from north to south, with a west to east decrease in water-level altitudes near Las Cruces, New Mexico, as a result of groundwater pumping. Groundwater flow within the Santa Fe Group is more complex than the groundwater flow within the Rio Grande alluvium because of the larger lateral and vertical extent of the Santa Fe Group compared to the Rio Grande alluvium. Groundwater from the Organ Mountains flows directly south towards the Paso del Norte. Groundwater from the Robledo Mountains, the Rough and Ready Hills, and the Sleeping Lady Hills generally flows to the southeast. Groundwater flowing near the north end of the midbasin uplift generally continues east towards the Rio Grande and then flows south on the east side of the midbasin uplift. Groundwater flowing near the west side of the midbasin uplift generally continues south parallel to the faults that make up the midbasin uplift and then flows east towards the Paso del Norte when it reaches the south end of the midbasin uplift. Groundwater from the Aden Hills and the East and West Potrillo Mountains flows to the south end of the midbasin uplift and then continues east towards the Paso del Norte. Throughout most of the Mesilla Valley, the vertical hydraulic gradient was downward because the water-level altitude in the Rio Grande alluvium was higher than it was in the Santa Fe Group, but in some areas (typically in the middle and southern parts of the Mesilla Valley), the vertical hydraulic gradient was substantially reduced or even reversed to an upward hydraulic gradient.

The geochemistry data indicate that there was a complex system of multiple geochemical endmembers and mixing between these endmembers with recharge to the Rio Grande alluvium and Santa Fe Group composed mostly of seepage from the Rio Grande, inflows from deeper or neighboring water systems, and mountain-front recharge. Five distinct geochemical groups were identified in the Mesilla Basin study area: (1) ancestral Rio Grande (pre-Pleistocene) geochemical group, (2) modern Rio Grande (Pleistocene to present) geochemical group, (3) mountain-front geochemical group, (4) deep groundwater upwelling geochemical group, and (5) unknown freshwater geochemical group. The ancestral Rio Grande groundwater was water that recharged into the system as seepage losses from the ancestral Rio Grande; this groundwater generally flows from north to south-southeast towards the Paso del Norte. Groundwater on the west side of the midbasin uplift generally flows south until it reaches the southern part of the study area; from the southern part of the study area, the groundwater flows east towards the Paso del Norte. Groundwater on the east side of the midbasin uplift flows south-southeast towards the Paso del Norte where it mixes with groundwater from the modern Rio Grande, uplifted areas in the west, and the deep saline source. The water type of the modern Rio Grande geochemical group ranged from calcium-sulfate water type in the northern part of the study area to sodium-chloride-sulfate water type in the southern part of the study area; from north to south there was a substantial increase in specific conductance, strontium-87/strontium-86 ratio, potassium, and the trace metals of iron and lithium, changing the water chemistry such that it became similar to the water chemistry of the deep groundwater upwelling geochemical group. From age-dating results, water in the modern Rio Grande geochemical group was recharged to the Rio Grande alluvium within the past 10 years. The mountain-front geochemical group was generally old water (apparent age was greater than 10,000 carbon-14 years before present) that was somewhat mineralized and has relatively high concentrations of fluoride and silica, which might indicate longer exposure to volcanic and siliciclastic rocks or aluminosilicate minerals. There were five different locations of recharge determined from the groundwater geochemistry within the mountain-front geochemical group, all having a slightly different geochemical signature: (1) the Rough and Ready Hills, Robledo Mountains, and the Sleeping Lady Hills, (2) the Doña Ana Mountains, (3) the Aden Hills and West Potrillo Mountains, (4) the East Potrillo Mountains, and (5) the Sierra Juárez in Mexico. The groundwater from the Rough and Ready Hills, Robledo Mountains, the Sleeping Lady Hills, and the Doña Ana Mountains generally flows toward the Rio Grande and eventually mixes together and with the modern Rio Grande groundwater. The groundwater originating from the Aden Hills and East and West Potrillo Mountains generally flows east to southeast at a slow rate and eventually mixes and continues east, where it mixes with groundwater from the ancestral Rio Grande geochemical group and with the groundwater from the Sierra Juárez. The groundwater from the Sierra Juárez flows north and then east towards the Paso del Norte where it mixes with groundwater from the uplifted areas in the west, ancestral and modern Rio Grande groundwater, and the upwelling groundwater from a deep saline source. The deep groundwater upwelling geochemical group had the highest concentrations of bicarbonate, potassium, silica, aluminum, iron, and lithium within the study area, indicating that it had been in contact with carbonate and siliciclastic rocks for a much longer period of time and at higher temperatures compared to the other geochemical groups, and was most likely ancient marine groundwater originating from the Paleozoic and Cretaceous carbonate rocks which was upwelling into the Mesilla Basin aquifer system in the southeastern part of the study area through the extensive fault systems. Direct-current resistivity and time-domain electromagnetic soundings support the interpretation of ancient marine groundwater upwelling into the Mesilla Basin aquifer system, as do the analytical results from wells, and the helicopter frequency domain electromagnetic data collected along the Rio Grande. The hydrogen-2/hydrogen-1 ratio and oxygen-18/oxygen-16 ratio isotopic results for samples in the unknown freshwater geochemical group did not plot on the Rio Grande evaporation line, indicating this group did not have a Rio Grande signature (that is, there was no isotopic evidence of a component of Rio Grande water) and it also had the lowest mineralized content of any geochemical group in the study area.

Suggested Citation

Teeple, A.P., 2017, Geophysics- and geochemistry-based assessment of the geochemical characteristics and groundwater-flow system of the U.S. part of the Mesilla Basin/Conejos-Médanos aquifer system in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, and El Paso County, Texas, 2010–12: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2017–5028, 183 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20175028.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Description of the Study Area
  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry
  • Geochemical Characteristics
  • Groundwater-Flow System
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendixes

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Geophysics- and geochemistry-based assessment of the geochemical characteristics and groundwater-flow system of the U.S. part of the Mesilla Basin/Conejos-Médanos aquifer system in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, and El Paso County, Texas, 2010–12
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
2017-5028
DOI:
10.3133/sir20175028
Year Published:
2017
Language:
English
Publisher:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Texas Water Science Center
Description:
Report: x, 183 p.; 2 Figures; Project Sites, Read Me
Country:
United States
State:
New Mexico, Texas
County:
Doña Ana County, El Paso County
Other Geospatial:
Mesilla Basin/Conejos-Médanos Aquifer System
Online Only (Y/N):
Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N):
Y