Increasing demand for the limited water resources of the United States continues to put pressure on resource management agencies to balance the competing needs of ecosystem health with municipal, agricultural, and other uses. To meet these needs, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a multiyear study to evaluate water resources in the upper Rio Grande Basin in the southwestern United States. The upper Rio Grande Basin extends from south-central Colorado, through New Mexico, into west Texas near Fort Quitman, including parts of Chihuahua, Mexico. The upper Rio Grande Basin consists of a sequence of alluvial basins that formed in the Rio Grande rift approximately 30 million years ago.
This report describes the hydrogeology of the upper Rio Grande Basin and how the groundwater resources in the basin have changed from 1980 to 2015. The hydrogeologic framework includes the horizontal delineation of the alluvial basins within the upper Rio Grande Basin from the headwaters in Colorado to Fort Quitman, Texas, including part of Mexico. Groundwater-level measurements from existing State and Federal data were used to construct groundwater-level altitude and groundwater-level change maps.
Of the 2,699 wells with groundwater-level data used in this study, 1,055 wells had data for only a single 5-year period, 703 wells had data for 50 percent or more of the 35 years of the study, and only 57 wells have 5-year groundwater-level data for the entire study period. The median decline in water levels in the upper Rio Grande Basin was 0.13 foot (ft) per 5-year period, and declines were measured in 53 percent of the 703 wells that contained data for 50 percent or more of the study period. Rates of groundwater-level decline greater than 1 ft per 5-year period were measured in 17 percent of the wells, greater than 2 ft per 5-year period, in 3 percent of the wells, and greater than 3 ft per 5-year period, in 1 percent of the wells. Overall, groundwater levels rose in 6 percent of the 703 wells that contained data for 50 percent or more of the study period, and in 4 percent of the wells, groundwater levels rose by 1 ft or more per 5-year period.
Groundwater-level changes in wells with consecutive 5-year measurement periods exhibited the most variability in the Española, Middle Rio Grande, and Mesilla/Conejos-Médanos alluvial basins. The largest declines in groundwater-level altitudes in individual wells were observed in the Española alluvial basin during 1995–2000, in the Palomas alluvial basin during 2010–2015, and in the Jornada del Muerto alluvial basin during 2005–10. The largest rises in groundwater-level altitudes in individual wells were observed in the Española alluvial basin during 2005–10, in the Middle Rio Grande alluvial basin during 1995–2000, and in the Mesilla/Conejos-Médanos alluvial basin during 1980–85.
Changes in groundwater storage throughout the study period varied by alluvial basin, likely based largely on changes in groundwater withdrawals because of increased demands during drier periods and population growth. All alluvial basins except the Tularosa-Hueco alluvial basin were evaluated for changes in groundwater storage from 1980 to 2015. Extremely limited data availability in 2010–15 for the Tularosa-Hueco alluvial basin led to this 5-year period being dropped from the groundwater-level change map and storage analysis for this basin.
In the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, efforts to reverse groundwater depletion in the unconfined aquifer recovered approximately 250,000 acre-feet in storage between late 2013 and early 2018, following the implementation of a “pay-to-pump” groundwater program. However, severe drought that persists in the upper Rio Grande Basin, particularly in southern Colorado, has undone some of the conservation efforts. Within the Española alluvial basin, groundwater storage varied because municipal demand increased the demand on groundwater resources and conservation efforts were implemented. A groundwater-flow model evaluated for the Española alluvial basin indicated declines in groundwater storage from 1947 through 1982. Groundwater storage decreased in the Española alluvial basin in 1980–85, 1985–90, 1990–95, 1995–2000, and 2005–10 and increased in 2000–05 and 2010–15 leading to groundwater storage in 2015 about even with that in 1985.
Based on gridded groundwater-level altitudes, groundwater storage decreased in the Middle Rio Grande Basin from 1980 to 2015, except for during the 1980–85, 2000–05, and 2010–15 periods with an overall cumulative storage decrease from 1980 to 2015. Groundwater-flow models evaluated for the Middle Rio Grande alluvial basin showed groundwater storage in the Middle Rio Grande alluvial basin has been reduced since the mid-1950s through the end of the study period except for a brief recovery (reduction in storage outflow) in the mid-1980s. Simulated groundwater storage has also decreased in parts of the Palomas and Mesilla/Conejos-Médanos alluvial basins, and the northern part of the Conejos-Médanos alluvial basin starting in 1995 (excluding 2005 and 2007) and in the Tularosa-Hueco alluvial basin from the early 1940s to the end of the study period. Groundwater storage increased in the Mesilla/Conejos-Médanos alluvial basin during 1980–85 and slightly during 1990–95 and then decreased in the other 5-year periods. Groundwater storage in the Tularosa-Hueco alluvial basin increased from 1985 to 1990, but otherwise decreased, leading to an overall net groundwater-level decline in this part of the basin from 1980 to 2010.
- Digital Object Identifier: 10.3133/sir20215035
- Source: USGS Publications Warehouse (indexId: sir20215035)