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An assessment of uranium in groundwater in the Grand Canyon region

January 14, 2022

The Grand Canyon region in northern Arizona is a home or sacred place of origin for many Native Americans and is visited by over 6 million tourists each year. Most communities in the area depend upon groundwater for all water uses. Some of the highest-grade uranium ore in the United States also is found in the Grand Canyon region. A withdrawal of over 1 million acres of Federal land in the Grand Canyon region from new uranium mining activities for 20 years was instituted in 2012, owing in part to a lack of scientific data on potential effects from uranium mining on water resources in the area. The USGS collects groundwater chemistry samples in the Grand Canyon region to understand the current state of groundwater quality, to monitor for changes in groundwater quality that may be the result of mining activities, and to identify "hot spots" with elevated metal concentrations and investigate the causes. This manuscript presents results for the assessment of uranium in groundwater in the Grand Canyon region. Analytical results for uranium in groundwater in the Grand Canyon region were available for 573 samples collected from 180 spring sites and 26 wells from September 1, 1981 to October 7, 2020. Samples were collected from springs issuing from stratigraphic units above, within, and below the Permian strata that hosts uranium ore in breccia pipes in the area. Maximum uranium concentrations at groundwater sites in the region ranged from less than 1 µg/L at 23 sites (11%) to 100 µg/L or more at 4 sites (2%). Of the 206 groundwater sites sampled, 195 sites (95%) had maximum observed uranium concentrations less than the USEPA Maximum Contaminant Level of 30 µg/L and 177 sites (86%) had uranium concentrations less than the 15 µg/L Canadian benchmark for protection of aquatic life in freshwater. The establishment of baseline groundwater quality is an important first step in monitoring for change in water chemistry throughout mining lifecycles and beyond to ensure the health of these critical groundwater resources.