Ground-Water Resources Program; National Research Program

U.S. Geological Survey
Professional Paper 1703-A

Ground-Water Recharge in the Arid and Semiarid Southwestern United States—Climatic and Geologic Framework

By David A. Stonestrom and James R. Harrill


The arid and semiarid southwestern U.S. study area is an interior continental region characterized by generally low precipitation (from figure 1).


Ground-water recharge in the arid and semiarid southwestern United States results from the complex interplay of climate, geology, and vegetation across widely ranging spatial and temporal scales. Present-day recharge tends to be narrowly focused in time and space. Widespread water-table declines accompanied agricultural development during the twentieth century, demonstrating that sustainable ground-water supplies are not guaranteed when part of the extracted resource represents paleorecharge. Climatic controls on ground-water recharge range from seasonal cycles of summer monsoonal and winter frontal storms to multimillennial cycles of glacial and interglacial periods. Precipitation patterns reflect global-scale interactions among the oceans, atmosphere, and continents. Large-scale climatic influences associated with El Niño and Pacific Decadal Oscillations strongly but irregularly control weather in the study area, so that year-to-year variations in precipitation and ground-water recharge are large and difficult to predict. Proxy data indicate geologically recent periods of multidecadal droughts unlike any in the modern instrumental record. Anthropogenically induced climate change likely will reduce ground-water recharge through diminished snowpack at higher elevations, and perhaps through increased drought. Future changes in El Niño and monsoonal patterns, both crucial to precipitation in the study area, are highly uncertain in current models. Land-use modifications influence ground-water recharge directly through vegetation, irrigation, and impermeable area, and indirectly through climate change. High ranges bounding the study area—the San Bernadino Mountains and Sierra Nevada to the west, and the Wasatch and southern Colorado Rocky Mountains to the east—provide external geologic controls on ground-water recharge. Internal geologic controls stem from tectonic processes that led to numerous, variably connected alluvial-filled basins, exposure of extensive Paleozoic aquifers in mountainous recharge areas, and distinct modes of recharge in the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range subregions.

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For questions about the content of this report, contact David Stonestrom

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