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Controls on spatial and temporal variations of brine discharge to the Dolores River in the Paradox Valley, Colorado, 2016–18

September 9, 2019

The Paradox Valley in southwestern Colorado is a collapsed anticline formed by movement of the salt-rich Paradox Formation at the core of the anticline. The salinity of the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River, increases substantially as it crosses the valley because of discharge of brine-rich groundwater derived from the underlying salts. Although the brine is naturally occurring, it increases the salinity of the Colorado River, which is a major concern to downstream agricultural, municipal, and industrial water users. The U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation conducted a study to improve the characterization of processes controlling spatial and temporal variations in brine discharge to the Dolores River. For the study, three geophysical surveys were conducted in March, May, and September 2017, and water levels were monitored in selected ponds and groundwater wells from November 2016 to May 2018. The study also utilized streamflow and specific conductance data from two U.S. Geological Survey streamflow-gaging stations on the Dolores River to estimate salt load to the river.

River-based continuous resistivity profiling and frequency domain electromagnetic induction surveys made during low-flow conditions indicated a zone of brine-rich groundwater close to the riverbed along an approximately 4-kilometer reach of the river. Under high-flow conditions, the brine was depressed as much as 2 meters below the riverbed, and brine discharge to the river was reduced to a minimum. Direct current electrical resistivity surveys show that the freshwater lens overlying the brine is much thicker (up to 10 meters) on the west bank than on the east bank (less than 5 meters). A large low-conductivity anomaly at river distance 6,800 meters was observed in all surveys and may represent a freshwater discharge zone or a losing reach of the river.

Filling and draining of the wildlife ponds on the west side of the river had a negligible effect on salt loads in the river during the study period. Groundwater monitoring showed there was active exchange of water between the river and the adjacent alluvial aquifer. When river stage was low, groundwater flowed towards the river, and brine discharge to the river increased. When the river stage was high, the gradient was reversed, and fresh surface water recharged the alluvial aquifer minimizing brine discharge. Most of the salt load to the river occurred during the winter and appeared to be enhanced by diurnal stage fluctuations.

A conceptual model of brine discharge to the river is presented at three scales. Groundwater at the regional scale drives dissolution of salt in the Paradox Formation and flow of brine into the base of the alluvial aquifer. Surface water–groundwater interactions at the scale of the alluvial aquifer control brine discharge to the river seasonally and interannually. At the finest scale, diurnal fluctuations in river stage drive exchange of freshwater with saltier pore water in the hyporheic zone, which appears to increase brine discharge to the river during winter.

Publication Year 2019
Title Controls on spatial and temporal variations of brine discharge to the Dolores River in the Paradox Valley, Colorado, 2016–18
DOI 10.3133/sir20195058
Authors Alisa Mast, Neil Terry
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2019-5058
Index ID sir20195058
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Colorado Water Science Center; WMA - Earth System Processes Division