Backcountry Travel for Science: Studying the Source of Groundwater in the Grand Canyon

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When you think of a day in the life of a scientist, adventure may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, many scientists find themselves in amazing locations where collecting data is physically challenging.

USGS scientists warm up in the sun as the scientific expedition moves downstream to the next sample location.

USGS scientists Tom Porter and Joel Unema warm up in the sun as the scientific expedition moves downstream to the next sample location. Credit: John Solder, USGS

A group of USGS and National Park Service scientists recently backcountry camped, scrambled over rocks and whitewater rafted in the search to better understand natural resources. The group covered 56 miles and 20,000 vertical feet on foot along the south rim of the Grand Canyon to collect samples from three springs – Blue Spring, Grapevine Main and Royal Arch. This past February the group traveled about 150 miles by raft in nine days on the Grand Canyon portion of the Colorado River where groundwater samples were collected from 140 mile and National Canyon springs. Extended backcountry trips are the only way to access these remote spring locations.

Springs flowing from Arizona’s Coconino Plateau serve an important role in maintaining habitat for native wildlife and aquatic species, supplying flow to the Colorado River and providing drinking water to wildlife, backcountry hikers and the local population. Havasu springs are extremely important for the livelihood of the Havasupai Tribe and are the source of Havasu Creek, supporting a population of endangered humpback chub.

Scientists traveled to the remote locations to assess the potential effects of mining along the Coconino Plateau and groundwater withdrawals associated with increasing populations. The groundwater samples collected will be analyzed for natural and manmade chemicals already present in the environment, and scientists will study those chemicals to help track groundwater source and movement. Spring sites selected for sampling cover a wide area and will be used to improve understanding of groundwater conditions such as how water flows through the system, identifying points of groundwater origin and recharge and possible pathways for contamination transport to springs. The research will examine the potential for future changes in groundwater quality and spring discharge. Results from this study will be incorporated with additional chemistry data to further characterize the springs and groundwater flow-system.

USGS scientists collect groundwater samples at Grapevine Main Spring. 

USGS scientists Kim Besiner, John Solder and Kate Wilkins collect groundwater samples at Grapevine Main Spring.  Credit: Christina Bryant, USGS.

USGS scientists rafted about 150 miles on the Grand Canyon portion of the Colorado River to collect groundwater samples.

USGS scientist Nick Voichick rafted about 150 miles in nine days on the Grand Canyon portion of the Colorado River to collect groundwater samples from springs in remote locations. Credit: John Solder, USGS

USGS scientist hikes to National Canyon Spring to collect groundwater samples from a remote location.

USGS scientist Joel Unema hikes to National Canyon Spring to collect groundwater samples from a remote location near the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Credit: John Solder, USGS

USGS and National Park Service scientists above Granite Gorge on the way to to collect groundwater samples from three springs. 

A group of USGS and National Park Service scientists above Granite Gorge on route for 56 miles and 20,000 vertical feet along the south rim of the Grand Canyon to collect groundwater samples from three springs.  Scientists in this photo (left to right) are Christina Bryant, Kim Beisner, John Solder and Kate Wilkins.