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Characterization of hydrology and water quality of Piceance Creek in the Alkali Flat area, Rio Blanco County, Colorado, March 2012

December 7, 2015

Previous studies by the U.S. Geological Survey identified Alkali Flat as an area of groundwater upwelling, with increases in concentrations of total dissolved solids, and streamflow loss, but additional study was needed to better characterize these observations. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, White River Field Office, conducted a study to characterize the hydrology and water quality of Piceance Creek in the Alkali Flat area of Rio Blanco County, Colorado.

Water-quality samples were collected at five springs on March 27, 2012, to determine field properties, major ions, trace elements, and stable isotopes of water. Major-ion and trace-element chemistry indicated that the springs sampled as part of this study were likely recharged by the bedrock aquifer. Isotopic values for the springs plotted close to that of groundwater from the Parachute Creek Member of the Green River Formation, and the isotopic values from both of these sources are similar to the values for Grand Mesa snow. Based on fluoride, lithium, and strontium concentrations, one spring appeared to have different source water than the other four springs. The spring also had higher concentrations of calcium, magnesium, and sulfate relative to the other four springs. Trace-element and major-ion data indicate that this spring was sourced from the Uinta Formation. It was likely the other four springs were primarily sourced from the lower part of the Parachute Creek Member of the Green River Formation as indicated by low sulfate concentrations and high fluoride, lithium, and boron concentrations.

Water-quality samples were collected at 16 surface-water-quality sites on March 14, 2012, to determine field properties, major ions, and trace elements. Sodium was the dominant cation and concentrations increased steadily from upstream to downstream along the study reach. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium concentrations remained relatively stable along the study reach. Strontium concentrations were relatively stable along the study reach, whereas boron and lithium concentrations increased appreciably at site PC22031 and remained elevated to the end of the study reach.

Loading profiles were used to further refine areas of spring and groundwater input and streamflow gains and losses. Although there was a minor gain in streamflow from sites PC21543 to PC21816 (58 to 59 cubic feet per second (ft3/s) during March 2014), the observed increase in dissolved solids load indicated groundwater contribution to Piceance Creek between these two sites. From sites PC22737 to PC22980, dissolved solids load decreased, which was not observed in concentration profiles and indicated that streamflow loss occurred between these two sites. Barium, boron, lithium, and strontium loads showed similar patterns to that of the major ions along the study reach and indicated similar areas of groundwater gain and loss. Boron and lithium load were not observed to decrease in a similar pattern to that of barium and strontium load which would suggest the contribution to the stream from sources with similar chemistry to that of spring sites PCSP2 through PCSP5. Sodium, chloride, and bicarbonate loads increased and decreased along the study reach in a pattern similar to that of dissolved solids load. A chemical mass balance was used to estimate the amount of groundwater and (or) spring water that contributed to the observed changes in water quality along Piceance Creek. This analysis indicated only 5 percent spring water would need to reach Piceance Creek to result in the observed changes in water quality.

Instantaneous streamflow was measured from sites PC20133 to PC23721 during field reconnaissance (February 2012) and during synoptic sampling (March 2012). During both February and March, the study reach from sites PC20133 to PC23721 was a losing reach with net losses that ranged from 0.5 ft3/s (February) to 3 ft3/s (March). Observed changes in streamflow along the study reach helped to depict interactions between groundwater and surface water in the Alkali Flat area.

Water-quality samples were collected at five surface-water sites in December 2010 that were sampled as part of a previous USGS study in 2000. Water-quality data collected during December 2010 showed no appreciable difference from water-quality data collected during December 2000 at the five sites.