Water resources of Big Horn County, Wyoming

Water-Resources Investigations Report 93-4021

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Groundwater in unconsolidated aquifers is the most reliable and accessible source of potable water in Big Horn County, Wyoming. Well yields generally ranged from 25 to 200 gal/min; however, yields of 1600 gal/min are reported from wells in the gravel, pediment, and fan deposits.

Bedrock aquifers that yield the most abundant water supplies are the Tensleep Sandstone, Madison Limestone, Bighorn Dolomite, and Flathead Sandstone. The aquifers with the most potential for development as a water supply, predominately composed of sandstone, are the Lance, Mesaverde, and Frontier Formations.

The Madison Limestone, the Darby Formation, and the Bighorn Dolomite form the Madison Bighorn aquifer. Reported yields from the aquifer ranged from 40 to 14,000 gal/min. Flowing wells from the Madison-Bighorn aquifer had shut-in pressures ranging from 41 to 212 pounds per square inch (95 to 490 feet above land surface).

Shut-in pressures from flowing wells in bedrock indicate declines, from the time the wells were completed to 1988, as much as 390 feet. Flows have also decreased over time.

Water samples from wells completed in unconsolidated aquifers have concentrations of dissolved solids less than 2,000 mg/L (milligrams per liter). Water from unconsolidated aquifers are classified as a calcium sulfate type, a sodium sulfate type, and sodium-calcium sulfate type.

Water samples from wells completed in aquifers in Paleozoic and Precambrian rocks had median concentrations of dissolved solids ranging from 111 to 275 mg/L. Water samples from wells in Tertiary and Cretaceous rocks had a median concentration of dissolved solids ranging from 1,107 to 3,320 mg/L. Water types for these aquifers were usually sodium sulfate.

Perennial streams originate in the mountains and ephemeral streams originate in the Bighorn Basin. Irrigation return-flow to streams maintains perennial flow in what would otherwise be ephemeral streams. Streams that originate in the Bighorn Basin have specific conductance values generally greater than 1,000 mg/L, whereas streams that originate in the Bighorn Mountains have specific conductance values generally less than 1,000 mg/L. The predominant dissolved constituents are calcium or sodium and bicarbonate or sulfate.

Concentrations of pesticides detected in surface-water samples were less than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USHPA) maximum contaminant levels. The detected concentrations of pesticides in streambed material in the organochlorine insecticide class ranged from 0.1 to 8.0 micrograms per kilogram. Pesticides detected in ground-water samples included dicamba and picloram at a concentration of 0.40 jig/L (micrograms per liter), atrazines (0.40 jig/L), aldicarb sulfone (1.44 |ig/L), aldicarb sulfoxide (0.52 |ig/L), and malathion (0.02 jig/L).

Analyses of ground-water samples for radionuclides indicate that concentrations from four municipal wells exceeded the maximum contaminant level established by the USEPA. Of these four wells, concentrations in water samples from the municipal well at Frannie consistently exceeded the USEPA maximum contaminant level for dissolved gross alpha activity of 15 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) and radium-226 plus radium-228 (5 pCi/L). The source of the radioactivity is postulated to be the Madison Limestone.

Surface water accounts for 96 percent and ground water accounts for 4 percent of total offstream water use in Big Horn County, Wyoming. Irrigation is the largest offstream use of both surface and ground water. About 99 percent of offstream surface water and 55 percent of ground water is used for irrigation. Eighty-two percent of the water used for irrigation is consumed, which includes a 37-percent conveyance loss and 45 percent consumed by the irrigated crops. Ground water supplies 89 percent of water used for domestic purposes and about 16 percent of water used for public supplies, which shows that ground water is a primary domestic water supply in rural areas where public supplies are not available.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Water resources of Big Horn County, Wyoming
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Report: vi, 142 p.; 2 Plates: 24.47 x 21.26 inches and 22.67 x 22.55 inches
United States
Big Horn County