As populations grow in the arid southwestern United States and desert bedrock aquifers are increasingly targeted for future development, understanding and quantifying the spatial variability of net infiltration and recharge becomes critically important for inventorying groundwater resources and mapping contamination vulnerability. A Geographic Information System (GIS)-based model utilizing readily available soils, topographic, precipitation, and outcrop data has been developed for predicting net infiltration to exposed and soil-covered areas of the Navajo Sandstone outcrop of southwestern Utah. The Navajo Sandstone is an important regional bedrock aquifer. The GIS model determines the net-infiltration percentage of precipitation by using an empirical equation. This relation is derived from least squares linear regression between three surficial parameters (soil coarseness, topographic slope, and downgradient distance from outcrop) and the percentage of estimated net infiltration based on environmental tracer data from excavations and boreholes at Sand Hollow Reservoir in the southeastern part of the study area.
Processed GIS raster layers are applied as parameters in the empirical equation for determining net infiltration for soil-covered areas as a percentage of precipitation. This net-infiltration percentage is multiplied by average annual Parameter-elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model (PRISM) precipitation data to obtain an infiltration rate for each model cell. Additionally, net infiltration on exposed outcrop areas is set to 10 percent of precipitation on the basis of borehole net-infiltration estimates. Soils and outcrop net-infiltration rates are merged to form a final map.
Areas of low, medium, and high potential for ground-water recharge have been identified, and estimates of net infiltration range from 0.1 to 66 millimeters per year (mm/yr). Estimated net-infiltration rates of less than 10 mm/yr are considered low, rates of 10 to 50 mm/yr are considered medium, and rates of more than 50 mm/yr are considered high. A comparison of estimated net-infiltration rates (determined from tritium data) to predicted rates (determined from GIS methods) at 12 sites in Sand Hollow and at Anderson Junction indicates an average difference of about 50 percent. Two of the predicted values were lower, five were higher, and five were within the estimated range. While such uncertainty is relatively small compared with the three order-of-magnitude range in predicted net-infiltration rates, the net-infiltration map is best suited for evaluating relative spatial distribution rather than for precise quantification of recharge to the Navajo aquifer at specific locations. An important potential use for this map is land-use zoning for protecting high net-infiltration parts of the aquifer from potential surface contamination.