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Preliminary geochemical assessment of water in selected streams, springs, and caves in the Upper Baker and Snake Creek drainages in Great Basin National Park, Nevada, 2009

July 18, 2014

Water in caves, discharging from springs, and flowing in streams in the upper Baker and Snake Creek drainages are important natural resources in Great Basin National Park, Nevada. Water and rock samples were collected from 15 sites during February 2009 as part of a series of investigations evaluating the potential for water resource depletion in the park resulting from the current and proposed groundwater withdrawals. This report summarizes general geochemical characteristics of water samples collected from the upper Baker and Snake Creek drainages for eventual use in evaluating possible hydrologic connections between the streams and selected caves and springs discharging in limestone terrain within each watershed.

Generally, water discharging from selected springs in the upper Baker and Snake Creek watersheds is relatively young and, in some cases, has similar chemical characteristics to water collected from associated streams. In the upper Baker Creek drainage, geochemical data suggest possible hydrologic connections between Baker Creek and selected springs and caves along it. The analytical results for water samples collected from Wheelers Deep and Model Caves show characteristics similar to those from Baker Creek, suggesting a hydrologic connection between the creek and caves, a finding previously documented by other researchers. Generally, geochemical evidence does not support a connection between water flowing in Pole Canyon Creek to that in Model Cave, at least not to any appreciable extent. The water sample collected from Rosethorn Spring had relatively high concentrations of many of the constituents sampled as part of this study. This finding was expected as the water from the spring travelled through alluvium prior to being discharged at the surface and, as a result, was provided the opportunity to interact with soil minerals with which it came into contact. Isotopic evidence does not preclude a connection between Baker Creek and the water discharging from Rosethorn Spring. The residence time of water discharging into the caves and from selected springs sampled as part of this study ranged from 10 to 25 years.

Within the upper Snake Creek drainage, the results of this study show geochemical similarities between Snake Creek and Outhouse Spring, Spring Creek Spring, and Squirrel Spring Cave. The strontium isotope ratio (87Sr/86Sr) for intrusive rock samples representative of the Snake Creek drainage were similar to carbonate rock samples. The water sample collected from Snake Creek at the pipeline discharge point had lower strontium concentrations than the sample downstream and a similar 87Sr/86Sr value as the carbonate and intrusive rocks. The chemistry of the water sample was considered representative of upstream conditions in Snake Creek and indicates minimal influence of rock dissolution. The results of this study suggest that water discharging from Outlet Spring is not hydrologically connected to Snake Creek but rather is recharged at high altitude(s) within the Snake Creek drainage. These findings for Outlet Spring largely stem from the relatively high specific conductance and chloride concentration, the lightest deuterium (δD) and oxygen-18 (δ18O) values, and the longest calculated residence time (60 to 90 years) relative to any other sample collected as part of this study. With the exception of water sampled from Outlet Spring, the residence time of water discharging into Squirrel Spring Cave and selected springs in the upper Snake Creek drainage was less than 30 years.

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