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Hydrosalinity studies of the Virgin River, Dixie Hot Springs, and Littlefield Springs, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada

August 21, 2014

The Virgin River contributes a substantial amount of dissolved solids (salt) to the Colorado River at Lake Mead in the lower Colorado River Basin. Degradation of Colorado River water by the addition of dissolved solids from the Virgin River affects the suitability of the water for municipal, industrial, and agricultural use within the basin. Dixie Hot Springs in Utah are a major localized source of dissolved solids discharging to the Virgin River. The average measured discharge from Dixie Hot Springs during 2009–10 was 11.0 cubic feet per second (ft3/s), and the average dissolved-solids concentration was 9,220 milligrams per liter (mg/L). The average dissolved-solids load—a measurement that describes the mass of salt that is transported per unit of time—from Dixie Hot Springs during this period was 96,200 tons per year (ton/yr).

Annual dissolved-solids loads were estimated at 13 monitoring sites in the Virgin River Basin from streamflow data and discrete measurements of dissolved-solids concentrations and (or) specific conductance. Eight of the sites had the data needed to estimate annual dissolved-solids loads for water years (WYs) 1999 through 2010. During 1999–2010, the smallest dissolved-solids loads in the Virgin River were upstream of Dixie Hot Springs (59,900 ton/yr, on average) and the largest loads were downstream of Littlefield Springs (298,200 ton/yr, on average). Annual dissolved-solids loads were smallest during 2002–03, which was a period of below normal precipitation. Annual dissolved-solids loads were largest during 2005—a year that included a winter rain storm that resulted in flooding throughout much of the Virgin River Basin.

An average seepage loss of 26.7 ft3/s was calculated from analysis of monthly average streamflow from July 1998 to September 2010 in the Virgin River for the reach that extends from just upstream of the Utah/Arizona State line to just above the Virgin River Gorge Narrows. Seepage losses from three river reaches in the Virgin River Gorge containing known fault zones accounted for about 48 percent of this total seepage loss. An additional seepage loss of 6.7 ft3/s was calculated for the reach of the Virgin River between Bloomington, Utah, and the Utah/Arizona State line. This loss in flow is small compared to total flow in the river and is comparable to the rated error in streamflow measurements in this reach; consequently, it should be used with caution.

Littlefield Springs were studied to determine the fraction of its discharge that originates as upstream seepage from the Virgin River and residence time of this water in the subsurface. Geochemical and environmental tracer data from groundwater and surface-water sites in the Virgin River Gorge area suggest that discharge from Littlefield Springs is a mixture of modern (post-1950s) seepage from the Virgin River upstream of the springs and older groundwater from a regional carbonate aquifer. Concentrations of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) CFC-12 and CFC-113, chloride/fluoride and chloride/bromide ratios, and the stable isotope deuterium indicate that water discharging from Littlefield Springs is about 60 percent seepage from the Virgin River and about 40 percent discharge from the regional carbonate aquifer. The river seepage component was determined to have an average subsurface traveltime of about 26 ±1.6 years before discharging at Littlefield Springs. Radiocarbon data for Littlefield Springs suggest groundwater ages from 1,000 to 9,000 years. Because these are mixed waters, the component of discharge from the carbonate aquifer is likely much older than the groundwater ages suggested by the Littlefield Springs samples.

If the dissolved-solids load from Dixie Hot Springs to the Virgin River were reduced, the irrigation water subsequently applied to agricultural fields in the St. George and Washington areas, which originates as water from the Virgin River downstream of Dixie Hot Springs, would have a lower dissolved-solids concentration. Dissolved-solids concentrations in excess irrigation water draining from the agricultural fields are about 1,700 mg/L higher than the concentrations in the Virgin River water that is currently (2014) used for irrigation that contains inflow from Dixie Hot Springs; this increase results from evaporative concentration and dissolution of mineral salts in the irrigated agricultural fields. The water samples collected from drains downgradient from the irrigated areas are assumed to include the dissolution of all available minerals precipitated in the soil during the previous irrigation season. Based on this assumption, a change to more dilute irrigation water will not dissolve additional minerals and increase the dissolved-solids load in the drain discharge. Following the hypothetical reduction of salts from Dixie Hot Springs, which would result in more dilute Virgin River irrigation water than is currently used, the dissolution of minerals left in the soil from the previous irrigation season would result in a net increase in dissolved-solids concentrations in the drain discharge, but this increase should only last one irrigation season. After one (or several) seasons of irrigating with more dilute irrigation water, mineral precipitation and subsequent re-dissolution beneath the agricultural fields should be greatly reduced, leading to a reduction in dissolved-solids load to the Virgin River below the agricultural drains.

A mass-balance model was used to predict changes in the dissolved-solids load in the Virgin River if the salt discharging from Dixie Hot Springs were reduced or removed. Assuming that 33.4 or 26.7 ft3/s of water seeps from the Virgin River to the groundwater system upstream of the Virgin River Gorge Narrows, the immediate hypothetical reduction in dissolved-solids load in the Virgin River at Littlefield, Arizona is estimated to be 67,700 or 71,500 ton/yr, respectively. The decrease in dissolved-solids load in seepage from the Virgin River to the groundwater system is expected to reduce the load discharging from Littlefield Springs in approximately 26 years, the estimated time lag between seepage from the river and discharge of the seepage water, after subsurface transport, from Littlefield Springs. At that time, the entire reduction in dissolved solids seeping from the Virgin River is expected to be realized as a reduction in dissolved solids discharging from Littlefield Springs, resulting in an additional reduction of 24,700 ton/yr (based on 33.4 ft3/s of seepage loss) or 21,000 ton/yr (based on 26.7 ft3/s of seepage loss) in the river’s dissolved-solids load at Littlefield.

Publication Year 2014
Title Hydrosalinity studies of the Virgin River, Dixie Hot Springs, and Littlefield Springs, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada
DOI 10.3133/sir20145093
Authors Steven J. Gerner, Susan A. Thiros
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2014-5093
Index ID sir20145093
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Utah Water Science Center