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Hydrogeologic characterization, groundwater chemistry, and vulnerability assessment, Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, Colorado and Utah

February 10, 2020

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (UMUT), initiated a study in 2016 to increase understanding of the hydrogeology and chemistry of groundwater within select areas of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation (UMUR) in Colorado and Utah, identify vulnerabilities to the system and other natural resources, and outline information needs to aid in the understanding and protection of groundwater resources. The results presented for this study can be used to support the UMUT’s goal of protecting their vital groundwater resources on the UMUR.

Hydrogeologic conditions were characterized for the surficial aquifer contained in Quaternary-age unconsolidated surficial deposits and the Dakota aquifer contained in the Cretaceous-age Dakota Sandstone. In the surficial aquifer, median depth to water ranges from about 5.4 to 17.2 feet below land surface in the Farm and Ranch Enterprise area and 11 to 34 feet below land surface in the Towaoc area, and the water table slopes generally southwest or south. A map of depth to the top of the Dakota Sandstone was constructed from existing well data. Depths range from zero in outcrop areas to more than 3,000 feet below land surface on mesas in the southeastern part of the UMUR.

Groundwater-chemistry data were collected by the UMUT from 13 springs and 31 wells from 1996 through 2017. Specific conductance was much lower for samples from springs than from wells; median values were 512 and 6,024 microsiemens per centimeter at 25 degrees Celsius, respectively. Spring samples were well oxygenated. A few well samples were anoxic (dissolved oxygen concentrations less than 0.5 milligrams per liter [mg/L]), indicating reducing conditions in the aquifer. About 75 percent of spring samples had fresh water (total dissolved solids concentrations less than 1,000 mg/L), and about 85 percent of well samples had brackish or highly saline water (total dissolved solids concentrations greater than 1,000 mg/L). Water type for springs on the Ute Mountains was calcium bicarbonate. Lower-altitude springs had a calcium-sulfate water type. Most well samples had sodium as the dominant cation, and sulfate, bicarbonate, and chloride as the dominant anions. Fluoride concentrations in about 45 percent of well samples were greater than an agricultural-use standard of 2 mg/L.

Nitrate plus nitrite concentrations in most spring and well samples were less than about 1.6 mg/L per liter. Concentrations in samples from wells in the irrigated agricultural area were elevated; the maximum concentration was 78.5 mg/L. About one-half of the trace-element samples had concentrations that were less than laboratory reporting limits. Only aluminum, arsenic, and selenium in spring samples, and boron and selenium in well samples, were detected at concentrations greater than surface-water standards or water-quality standards for agricultural use of groundwater.

Only three organic compounds, the pesticides alachlor and atrazine and the volatile organic compound di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, were detected in well samples. The Escherichia coli bacteria was detected in 47 and 23 percent of samples from wells and springs, respectively. The E. coli detections included samples from three culturally significant springs, which did not meet the UMUT cultural-use standard of total absence of E. coli.

Tritium and carbon-14 were the primary environmental tracers used for interpreting groundwater ages for Lopez 2 Spring and five wells (AP–1, 5000 Block, Cottonwood Spring, Goodknight, and SE Toe). Water from the AP–1 well contained a mixture of pre- and post-1950s recharge. Tritium and carbon-14 recharge ages for Lopez 2 Spring (post-1950s in age), Goodknight and SE Toe wells (pre-1950s in age), and Cottonwood Spring well (primarily pre-1950s in age) are supported by helium-4 data. The helium-4 data for the 5000 Block well are inconsistent with the tritium and carbon-14 age of pre-1950s recharge because of interference caused by high methane concentrations in the water. 

Springs and surficial deposits are more vulnerable to contamination from anthropogenic chemicals than deeper bedrock wells. Bedrock aquifers are vulnerable in areas where the geologic formations containing the aquifers are exposed at the land surface. Groundwater in deep bedrock aquifers is likely thousands of years old and is not currently affected by present-day land uses. Both shallow and deep groundwater are vulnerable to naturally occurring salts and minerals, such as of total dissolved solids, major ions, nitrate, and trace elements.

Effects of a changing climate on water resources and other ecological characteristics of the UMUR could include changes in evapotranspiration, a decrease in snowpack, decreased aquifer recharge and flow of springs, a decrease in soil moisture, and increased occurrence of wildfires and forest mortality. Of particular interest for the UMUT are possible effects of a changing climate on medicinal and culturally important plants and springs

Several information needs were identified during this study that would aid in the understanding and protection of groundwater resources on the UMUR. These include well-completion information for bedrock wells, the collection of environmental tracer data at additional wells, the addition of methane and hydrocarbon analysis to well sampling plans, and the resampling of springs and wells that were last sampled in 2002 or earlier.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title Hydrogeologic characterization, groundwater chemistry, and vulnerability assessment, Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, Colorado and Utah
DOI 10.3133/sir20195122
Authors Nancy J. Bauch, L. Rick Arnold
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2019-5122
Index ID sir20195122
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Colorado Water Science Center