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Preliminary geohydrologic assessment of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Altar Valley, southeastern Arizona

November 10, 2021

The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge is located in the southern part of Altar Valley, southwest of Tucson in southeastern Arizona. The primary water-supply well at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge has experienced a two-decade decrease in groundwater levels in the well, as have other wells in the southern part of Altar Valley. In part to understand this trend, a study was undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to summarize what is known about the geohydrologic system on the refuge and analyze groundwater-level trends and precipitation-groundwater correlations. In addition, available data were compiled where possible on the climate, land cover, soils, geology, and hydrology to provide a foundation for future modeling of the system.

Altar Valley is a sedimentary basin bounded by a mixture of Paleozoic to Tertiary sedimentary, volcanic, granitic, and metamorphic rocks. The valley fill is undifferentiated Tertiary to Quaternary sediments underlain by middle Miocene to Pliocene rocks that consist of moderately to strongly consolidated conglomerate and sandstone. Surface water, when present in the predominantly ephemeral streams of the valley, flows from south to north. Arivaca Creek has a cienega (or wetland) where groundwater surfaces before it flows as a short perennial reach out of Arivaca Basin. Groundwater maps compiled between 1934 and 2016 showed groundwater flowing from south to north. Before the 1980s, temporal patterns of groundwater levels in wells in Altar Valley varied substantially from one well to another. In the mid-1980s, comparatively high levels of precipitation occurred: the 1980s median value was 15.3 inches, whereas the median for the period of record was 13.2 inches. In addition, apparently corresponding groundwater level increases were seen in nearly all wells studied. After this initial increase, two different groundwater-level trends began to be observed in two spatially distinct sets of wells: in the northern part, groundwater levels were relatively steady, whereas in the southern part, groundwater levels declined from 10 to 20 feet between 1990 and 2019. Annual groundwater pumpage declined substantially in the northern part of the valley beginning in the early 1980s, but it began to increase again in the 1990s. Pumpage in the southern part has remained low and relatively steady compared to the northern part. Although the precise reasons for the declining groundwater levels in the southern part remain unclear, groundwater levels may be affected by factors such as climate cycles, long-term drought, and temperature-induced declines in recharge, resulting in increased evapotranspiration.

Preliminary analyses of two wells, one selected from each part of the valley, using linear regression and lag correlation to investigate correlation between annual precipitation and groundwater levels, showed a maximum correlation at a lag of about 17 years in the southern part of the valley and about 25 years in the northern part, indicating that, although variable sources and traveltimes of recharged water may be needed to propagate to each location, the strongest correlation at each well is with precipitation that was recharged 17 and 25 years prior to the groundwater response in that well. Assuming a constant flow of groundwater from the southern to the northern part of the valley, a decrease in recharge is expected to lead to a decrease in aquifer storage. As to the comparatively stable groundwater levels in the northern part, pumpage is still only about one-half what it was in the early 1980s, even though pumpage has increased there since the 1990s. Water levels in most wells in the northern part were drawn down prior to the decrease in pumping in the early 1980s, possibly owing to a combination of pumping and the nearly 20-year midcentury drought that occurred between 1940 and 1960. Water levels were in the process of recovering when the increase in pumping occurred in the 1990s. Because the water levels were recovering (increasing) instead of remaining static, the increased pumping may have only limited the recovery rather than causing a decrease in water levels, as a new quasi-equilibrium state may have been reached. Additional possible causes for the stable groundwater levels include (1) upgradient aquifer transmissivity that was high enough to offset pumping, (2) a low-permeability barrier, such as bedrock or clay, at the north end of the valley that caused groundwater pooling, (3) higher lateral inflow of groundwater in the northern part of the valley, (4) a delay in the effect of storage declines propagating from the south, or (5) some combination thereof.