This study assessed progress toward achieving sustainable groundwater use in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed of the Upper San Pedro Basin, Arizona, through evaluation of 14 indicators of sustainable use. Sustainable use of groundwater in the Sierra Vista Subwatershed requires, at a minimum, a stable rate of groundwater discharge to, and thus base flow in, the San Pedro River. Many of the 14 indicators are therefore related to long-term or short-term effects on base flow and provide us with a means to evaluate groundwater discharge to and base flow in the San Pedro River. The indicators were based primarily on 10 to 20 years of data monitoring in the subwatershed, ending in 2012, and included subwatershedwide indicators, riparian-system indicators, San Pedro River indicators, and springs indicators.
Groundwater management actions including voluntary retirement of irrigation pumping in the subwatershed resulted in about a 5,100 acre-feet (acre-ft) reduction in net human use from 2002 to 2012. Subwatershed population increased more than 10,000 during the same period. Most of the reduction occurred during 2002–07 and included reductions in groundwater pumping and increases in managed recharge; net human use varied annually by a few hundred acre-ft during 2007–12. The groundwater budget for 2012 showed a deficit of about 5,000 acre-ft, although the total water-budget uncertainty was about 5,500 acre-ft.
In the vicinity of the U.S. Army’s Fort Huachuca, regional-aquifer water levels were in steady decline beginning in at least the mid-1990s (in older wells since at least the early-1970s), as the cone of depression centered on the Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca pumping centers continued to deepen. This was evident in the individual water levels on Fort Huachuca, as well as from the horizontal hydraulic gradients that extend from the pumping centers toward the San Pedro and Babocomari Rivers. Basin water levels in wells southeast of Sierra Vista, away from the river, were also experiencing declines, while some water levels closer to the river were rising.
Near-stream vertical gradients along the San Pedro River showed no clear increasing or decreasing trends that would indicate a shift in the direction of subsurface flow between the riverbed and the alluvial aquifer, or a trend in the magnitude of groundwater/surface-water exchange. Annual streamflow permanence data showed no clear change in streamflow permanence trends in any of the river reaches, other than those related to precipitation trends. Similarly, the single-day, dry-season, wet-dry streamflow analysis of all subwatershed river reaches indicated no change in condition over the past 14 years, with the exception of the Hereford reach, which has seen a statistically significant increase in wetted length. Dry-season, alluvial-aquifer water levels in the Hereford reach also showed a statistically significant increase. These improvements are attributed to the end of irrigation pumping in the area. Although data indicate that the length of the Fairbank North wetted reach may be in decline, it is not yet statistically significant.
Stable-isotope data indicated reduced groundwater discharge to the Babocomari River in the vicinity of the Babocomari River near Tombstone gaging station and to the San Pedro River near the San Pedro River at Palominas gaging station and near the Lewis Springs DCP stage recorder. The Babocomari River near Tombstone gaging station is downgradient of the major pumping centers. The change in isotopic signature at the Lewis Springs stage recorder could have been the result of alterations in groundwater/surface-water interactions there caused by beaver damming of the river. Base flow in the San Pedro River declined over the periods of record at the three San Pedro River gaging stations in the subwatershed (Palominas, Charleston, and Tombstone), as well as at the Babocomari River near Tombstone gaging station. Precipitation declined slightly from the 1990s to the 2000s, although there is no statistically significant trend in subwatershed precipitation from 1991 to 2012. The occurrence of large winter discharge events appeared to decline and that of large summer discharge events appeared to increase over this same period.
Data for physical parameters, general chemistry, nutrient species, select trace elements, and suspended sediment were collected at San Pedro River at Charleston stream-gaging station. These data were summarized over time and analyzed in relation to discharge and season as a means to assess trends over the period of analysis. Federal and State of Arizona drinking-water and human-contact standards were all met and few exceedances occurred for the ecological thresholds investigated. Several constituents showed a significant trend over the period of analysis, but only concentration and flux data for total phosphate, orthophosphate, total nitrogen, suspended sediment, and sulfate were suitable to be used in a weighted regression analysis that statistically accounted for time, discharge, and season. Sulfate concentrations and flux showed a significant downward trend over the period of analysis, whereas total phosphorus and ortho-phosphate showed a relatively small magnitude upward trend relative to standards. Suspended sediment concentrations and flux both showed a significant downward trend in the 1980s, an effect attributed to reduction of cattle in the subwatershed at about this time, and (or) increased cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and willow (Salix goodingii) recruitment, and (or) the curtailment of sand and gravel mining adjacent to the San Pedro River with the designation of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in 1988. A spike in sediment flux in 2006 may be attributable to the more than 100 debris flows in the Huachuca Mountains during the summer monsoon of that year.
Spring discharge along the San Pedro River generally increased at three sites proximate to the Sierra Vista treated effluent recharge facility and varied somewhat with climate at two other sites. Median annual discharge at the recharge facility peaked in 2006, and at Murray Springs and Horsethief Spring, downgradient of the recharge facility, in 2009. Sampling for trace organic compounds in flow from springs was carried out using both discrete sampling and passive sampling methods. Spring samples thus collected showed the presence of trace-organic compounds. Lewis Springs (background site) had the least number of detections, whereas Murray Springs, located directly downgradient of the City of Sierra Vista’s treated effluent recharge facility, had the greatest number of detections of all the springs. Discrete samples from the recharge facility had more than twice the detections found in discrete samples from Murray Spring and at much higher concentrations. Few similar trace-organic compounds were detected at both the springs and the treated effluent recharge facility, and the number of detections did not increase during the collection period. Limitations of the study prevented the determination of trace-organic concentration in passive samplers and also prevented linking trace organic compounds detected at the treated effluent recharge facility with compounds detected from the springs. In particular, trace organic compounds could also derive from other sources such as septic systems.
Looking at the subwatershed as a whole, base flow was in decline along the entire river reach, but determination of the specific cause of the decline was beyond the scope of this report. Conditions in the area from the municipal pumping center of Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca northeast to the river (from about the Charleston to Tombstone gaging stations) were more commonly in decline than in regions further south. Both long-term indicators, such as regional aquifer groundwater levels and horizontal gradients, and the isotope analysis indicated that groundwater discharge to the river and thus base flow may continue to decline in that area. South of Charleston, indicators were more mixed. Some indicators in the Hereford reach suggest groundwater discharge to the San Pedro River may be increasing there, whereas some indicators in the Palominas reach suggest groundwater discharge to the river there may be declining.
- Digital Object Identifier: 10.3133/sir20165114
- Source: USGS Publications Warehouse (indexId: sir20165114)