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A process to estimate net infiltration using a site-scale water-budget approach, Rainier Mesa, Nevada National Security Site, Nevada, 2002–05

August 29, 2017

This report documents a process used to estimate net infiltration from precipitation, evapotranspiration (ET), and soil data acquired at two sites on Rainier Mesa. Rainier Mesa is a groundwater recharge area within the Nevada National Security Site where recharged water flows through bedrock fractures to a deep (450 meters) water table. The U.S. Geological Survey operated two ET stations on Rainier Mesa from 2002 to 2005 at sites characterized by pinyon-juniper and scrub-brush vegetative cover. Precipitation and ET data were corrected to remove measurement biases and gap-filled to develop continuous datasets. Net infiltration (percolation below the root zone) and changes in root-zone water storage were estimated using a monthly water-balance model.

Site-scale water-budget results indicate that the heavily-fractured welded-tuff bedrock underlying thin (<40 centimeters) topsoil is a critical water source for vegetation during dry periods. Annual precipitation during the study period ranged from fourth lowest (182 millimeters [mm]) to second highest (708 mm) on record (record = 55 years). Annual ET exceeded precipitation during dry years, indicating that the fractured-bedrock reservoir capacity is sufficient to meet atmospheric-evaporative demands and to sustain vegetation through extended dry periods. Net infiltration (82 mm) was simulated during the wet year after the reservoir was rapidly filled to capacity. These results support previous conclusions that preferential fracture flow was induced, resulting in an episodic recharge pulse that was detected in nearby monitoring wells. The occurrence of net infiltration only during the wet year is consistent with detections of water-level rises in nearby monitoring wells that occur only following wet years.