Deep Aquifer Recharge in the Columbia River Basalt Group, Upper Umatilla River Basin, Northeastern Oregon

Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5110
Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation
By: , and 

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Abstract

Groundwater is an important component of the water resources of the upper Umatilla River Basin of northeastern Oregon. As such, understanding the capacity of the resource is vital. Past studies have estimated recharge in the study area. One recent study of the upper Umatilla River Basin indicated that about 80 percent of recharge entering the groundwater system is discharged to streams in the study area through shallow groundwater-flow paths, leaving about 20 percent of recharge to infiltrate deeper parts of the aquifer system. The purpose of this work is to quantify the spatial distribution and variability of deep aquifer recharge in the study area and to understand the reasons for a relatively low percentage of total recharge reaching the deeper parts of the groundwater-flow system.

The study area is divided into two distinct physiographic regions—the highly dissected Blue Mountains and the lowland plains. Underlying both regions of the study area are basalts of the Columbia River Basalt Group (CRBG), which is the principal aquifer in the study area. Deep incision by streams in the Blue Mountains disrupts the lateral continuity of the CRBG aquifer units, and infiltrating water is more readily diverted laterally and discharged to streams and springs. In the lowland plains, incision is less pronounced. The shallow CRBG units might be disrupted, but deeper aquifer units retain their lateral continuity and enable groundwater to infiltrate deeper and flow laterally farther downgradient before discharging.

Recharge to the deep basalt aquifers is estimated as the difference between total recharge and base flow. Total recharge is the portion of precipitation and applied irrigation water that infiltrates past the root zone to become groundwater recharge. Of this total recharge, a proportion discharges to springs and streams in the study area, and the remaining water infiltrates below the base level of streams and recharges the deep basalt aquifers and contributes to the regional groundwater flow system. The portion of total recharge that recharges the regional flow system is referred to as deep aquifer recharge.

Total recharge is the portion of precipitation and applied irrigation water that infiltrates past the root zone to become groundwater recharge. It is the sum of recharge from precipitation and recharge from infiltration of irrigation water. Recharge from precipitation was calculated using a regression method developed for the Columbia Plateau. Recharge from infiltrating irrigation water was obtained from a water balance model developed for the Columbia Plateau.

Base flow, the component of streamflow that represents groundwater discharge as opposed to runoff from the land surface, was estimated using the Base Flow Index Modified (BFI-Modified) method, an empirical hydrograph separation technique. Base flow was estimated in eight subbasins with streamgages within the study area. Five of the eight subbasins in which base flow was estimated had permitted water rights for irrigation that specified surface water as the primary source of water. Maximum surface-water withdrawal for irrigation was estimated for all subbasins in which water rights for irrigation occur.

The base-flow estimate from BFI-Modified is assumed to be the minimum amount of base flow. The sum of the BFIModified base-flow estimate and the maximum permitted surface-water withdrawal estimate for each subbasin is assumed to be the maximum amount of base flow at the streamgage. These minimum and maximum estimates of base flow were used to calculate minimum and maximum values of deep aquifer recharge in each subbasin analyzed within the study area. Subbasin estimates were scaled up to the Blue Mountains and lowland plains regions, and to the entire study area.

Mean annual total recharge for 1981–2010 in the subbasins, analyzed as part of this work, ranged from 6 inches (in.) in the Patawa and Wildhorse Creek subbasins in the lowland plains to as much as 20 in. in the Umatilla River above Meacham Creek subbasin. Mean annual total recharge totaled 4 in. in the lowland plains region and 14 in. in the Blue Mountains. Mean annual total recharge for the entire study area was 11 in.

Mean annual base flow ranged from 1 in. in the Patawa and Wildhorse Creek subbasins in the lowland plains to as much as 14 in. in the Umatilla River above Meacham Creek subbasin in the Blue Mountains.

Mean annual deep aquifer recharge ranged from 4 in. in the Patawa and Wildhorse Creek subbasins in the lowland plains to as much as 8 in. in the Isqu’ulktpe Creek subbasin in the Blue Mountains. Deep aquifer recharge was 3–4 in. in the lowland plains region and 6 in. in the Blue Mountains. Over the entire study area, mean annual deep aquifer recharge was 5 in.

Most groundwater recharge (both total and deep aquifer) in the study area occurred in the Blue Mountains, which highlights the importance of the Blue Mountains as the principal source of groundwater for the study area and for aquifers farther downgradient. Total recharge in the Blue Mountains region represents 86 percent of the mean annual total recharge in the study area in an area that encompasses 65 percent of the study area. However, only 43–44 percent of the mean annual total recharge remains in the system to recharge the deeper, regional aquifer system because the rest is discharged as base flow within the Blue Mountains region. Within the lowland plains region of the study area, an estimated 67–84 percent of the mean annual total recharge remains in the system to recharge the deep, regional aquifer system. Although total recharge in the study area represents only 14 percent of the total recharge across the study area, it contributes 20–24 percent of the water to the deep aquifer.

The difference in the percentage of deep groundwater recharge in the Blue Mountains and the lowland plains is attributed to differences in the degree of stream incision. Stream channels are more incised in the Blue Mountains region than they are in the lowland plains. The dissection of the landscape in the Blue Mountains disrupts the lateral continuity of the CRBG aquifer units and allows groundwater to discharge to springs and streams rather than infiltrate more deeply. In the lowland plains region, incision is much less pronounced and deeper CRBG units likely retain their lateral continuity, enabling groundwater to infiltrate more deeply than in the Blue Mountains.

Suggested Citation

Pischel, E.M., Johnson, H.M., and Gingerich, S.B., 2018, Deep aquifer recharge in the Columbia River Basalt Group, upper Umatilla River Basin, northeastern Oregon: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018–5110, 23 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20185110.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Description of Study Area
  • Methods
  • Recharge Estimate Results
  • Discussion
  • Study Limitations and Future Work
  • Summary
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Deep aquifer recharge in the Columbia River Basalt Group, upper Umatilla River Basin, northeastern Oregon
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2018-5110
DOI 10.3133/sir20185110
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Oregon Water Science Center
Description Report: iv, 23 p.; Data release
Country United States
State Oregon
Other Geospatial Upper Umatilla River Basin
Online Only (Y/N) Y