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Assessing hydraulic connections across a complex sequence of volcanic rocks - Analysis of U-20 WW multiple-well aquifer test, Pahute Mesa, Nevada National Security Site, Nevada

October 18, 2011

Groundwater beneath Pahute Mesa flows through a complexly layered sequence of volcanic rock aquifers and confining units that have been faulted into distinct structural blocks. Hydraulic property estimates of rocks and structures in this flow system are necessary to assess radionuclide migration near underground nuclear testing areas. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) used a 12 month (October 1, 2008— October 1, 2009) intermittent pumping schedule of well U-20 WW and continuously monitored water levels in observation wells ER-20-6 #3, UE-20bh 1, and U-20bg as a multi-well aquifer test to evaluate hydraulic connections across structural blocks, bulk hydraulic properties of volcanic rocks, and the hydraulic significance of a major fault. Measured water levels were approximated using synthetic water levels generated from an analytical model. Synthetic water levels are a summation of environmental water-level fluctuations and a Theis (1935) transform of the pumping signal from flow rate to water-level change. Drawdown was estimated by summing residual differences between measured and synthetic water levels and the Theis-transformed pumping signal from April to September 2009. Drawdown estimates were used in a three‑dimensional numerical model to estimate hydraulic properties of distinct aquifers, confining units, and a major fault.

A maximum water-level drawdown of nearly 0.4 foot in well UE-20bh 1, which is more than 1 mile from the pumping well, was detected across a major fault. Drawdown estimates in the observation well nearest to (ER-20-6 #3, less than 1 mile) and within the same structural block as the pumping well were less than detection (<0.1 foot). Minimal drawdown within the same structural block indicates that lava units are likely separated by bedded tuff confining units. Hydraulic property estimates indicate that wells U-20 WW, UE-20bh 1, and ER-20-6 #3 produce water from moderately permeable fractured lava, as hydraulic conductivity and specific storage estimates average 4.8 feet per day and 2.1×10–6 per foot, respectively, and transmissivity estimates range from 1,200 to 3,600 feet squared per day. Sensitivity analyses indicate that the major fault is hydraulically similar to the permeable host rock and connects flow between structural blocks.