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Groundwater chemistry and water-level elevations in bedrock aquifers of the Piceance and Yellow Creek watersheds, Rio Blanco County, Colorado, 2013–16

November 21, 2018

The Piceance and Yellow Creek watersheds in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, are known to contain important energy resources (oil shale and natural gas) and mineral resources (nahcolite). The primary sources of fresh groundwater in the Piceance and Yellow Creek watersheds are bedrock aquifers in the Uinta and Green River Formations. The aquifers are divided into an upper and lower aquifer separated by a regionally extensive semiconfining layer. These aquifers provide water to streams and springs in the watersheds and are an important resource to people living and working in the area. Development of energy and mineral resources has the potential to affect the quality of groundwater in several ways. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey began groundwater monitoring in 2010 to characterize the groundwater quality and water-level elevations of shallow bedrock aquifers in the Piceance and Yellow Creek watersheds. The purpose of this report is to present ground-water chemistry and water-level elevations collected during 2013–16. Comparisons are made to data that were collected from the bedrock aquifers from 2010 to 2012 to identify the potential for changes in water quality and water-level elevations.

Appreciable changes in water-level elevations and hydraulic gradient were observed in early April 2015 in two wells completed in the upper and lower aquifers. The hydraulic gradient between the two wells was consistently downward from the upper aquifer to the lower aquifer during 2010–15; however, in early April 2015, the gradient changed from downward to upward between the two aquifers. Overall, water-level elevations declined by about 14 and 11 feet in the upper and lower aquifers, respectively, from 2013 to 2016. Previously published data estimated groundwater ages at 1,200 years old in the upper aquifer and 9,600 years old in the lower aquifer. These groundwater ages indicate that ground-water was recharged over thousands of years. With such long periods of time for aquifer recharge, declines in water-level elevation over short time steps (a few months) have important implications for sustainable management of this resource. Solution mining activities or drilling for oil and natural gas in the area could be related to the changes observed in water-level elevations in these wells; however, further investigation would be needed to evaluate causation.

Changes in major-ion chemistry were evaluated in the bedrock aquifer using time series plots of select major-ion data from 2010 to 2016. Major-ion chemistry was variable for a single well from 2010 to 2016 where alkalinity and sulfate were the most variable constituents. One possible explanation for the observed changes in major-ion chemistry may be that the sample depth for that well no longer represents the most appreciable flow in the borehole. On a larger scale, potential changes in flow within the borehole may indicate changes in the regional flow system. Methane and volatile organic compound concentrations were evaluated using a similar approach to that of major ions and had similar findings. Methane concentrations in wells sampled from 2010 to 2016 were generally constant. The only exception was observed at a single well where the range of methane concentrations was from 57.4 (2010) to 4.02 milligrams per liter (2013). This is the same well where changes in water-level elevation, hydraulic gradient, and major-ion chemistry were observed, providing multiple lines of evidence to indicate change in the bedrock aquifers. Sampling of a well located in an area with little energy development but where faults or fractures could provide a path for the migration of fluids indicate mixing of groundwater between the upper and lower aquifers.

Publication Year 2018
Title Groundwater chemistry and water-level elevations in bedrock aquifers of the Piceance and Yellow Creek watersheds, Rio Blanco County, Colorado, 2013–16
DOI 10.3133/sir20185142
Authors Judith C. Thomas, Peter B. McMahon
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5142
Index ID sir20185142
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Colorado Water Science Center