The Bighorn River has incised a deep, broad valley in Cretaceous strata along its 65-mile lower reach below the mouth of Bighorn Canyon in south-central Montana. It ceased downcutting at six different levels 100-200 feet apart, widening its flood plain and alluviating each level with about 30 feet of sandy gravel. These deposits are the only economic source of ground water in large areas of the valley where the underlying bedrock consists of relatively impermeable shale to great depths. Ground water in the alluvium is hard and in the irrigated lowlands is highly mineralized at those places where drainage is slow and discharge by evapotranspiration is great.
Three bedrock sandstone aquifers are present at moderate depths along three separate reaches of the valley. The sandstones yield soft, moderately to highly mineralized water that contains a high percent sodium.
Wells in alluvial gravel of the irrigated lowlands can yield 100 gallons per minute at many places because the alluvium is fairly permeable and is readily recharged by infiltration of applied irrigation water, canal seepage, and ground water moving into the lowlands from the alluvium of tributary coulees. Seepage from the Two Leggins Canal in the central area probably is large.
Alluvial gravel deposits have been mantled by thick alluvial and colluvial deposits of silty clay or silt that thin riverward. These fine-grained deposits drain slowly and confine ground water in alluvial gravel under artesian pressure at many places in the irrigated lowlands of the central and southern areas. The piezometric surface is close to the land surface at many places in the central area, and capillary rise and evapotranspiration in waterlogged ground has produced agriculturally harmful alkali deposits.
Waterlogging of presently irrigated land in the central area will become more widespread if irrigation is extended to higher terraces to the west unless drainage ditches are installed along the base of high-terrace alluvium to intercept increased seepage and spring discharge. Additional provisions also may be required to intercept water moving through the alluvium of coulees.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Geology and ground-water resources of the lower Bighorn Valley, Montana
Water Supply Paper
Geological Survey; for sale by the Supt. of Docs.] U.S. Govt. Print. Off.,
v, 39 p. :illus., maps (1 fold. col. in pocket) ;24 cm.