Ground-Water Resources Program; National Research Program

U.S. Geological Survey
Professional Paper 1703-E

Focused Ground-Water Recharge in the Amargosa Desert Basin

By David A. Stonestrom, David E. Prudic, Michelle A. Walvoord, Jared D. Abraham, Amy E. Stewart-Deaker, Patrick A. Glancy, Jim Constantz, Randell J. Laczniak, and Brian J. Andraski


Physiographic and cultural features in the Amargosa Desert study area and vicinity, Nye County, Nev., and Inyo County, Calif. (from figure 1).


The Amargosa River is an approximately 300-kilometer long regional drainage connecting the northern highlands on the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nev., to the floor of Death Valley in Inyo County, Calif. Streamflow analysis indicates that the Amargosa Desert portion of the river is dry more than 98 percent of the time. Infiltration losses during ephemeral flows of the Amargosa River and Fortymile Wash provide the main sources of ground-water recharge on the desert-basin floor. The primary use of ground water is for irrigated agriculture. The current study examined ground-water recharge from ephemeral flows in the Amargosa River by using streamflow data and environmental tracers. The USGS streamflow-gaging station at Beatty, Nev., provided high-frequency data on base flow and storm runoff entering the basin during water years 1998–2001. Discharge into the basin during the four-year period totaled 3.03 million cubic meters, three quarters of which was base flow. Streambed temperature anomalies indicated the distribution of ephemeral flows and infiltration losses within the basin. Major storms that produced regional flow during the four-year period occurred in February 1998, during a strong El Niño that more than doubled annual precipitation, and in July 1999. The study also quantified recharge beneath undisturbed native vegetation and irrigation return flow beneath irrigated fields. Vertical profiles of water potential and environmental tracers in the unsaturated zone provided estimates of recharge beneath the river channel (0.04–0.09 meter per year) and irrigated fields (0.1–0.5 meter per year). Chloride mass-balance estimates indicate that 12–15 percent of channel infiltration becomes ground-water recharge, together with 9–22 percent of infiltrated irrigation. Profiles of potential and chloride beneath the dominant desert-shrub vegetation suggest that ground-water recharge has been negligible throughout most of the basin since at least the early Holocene. Surface-based electrical-resistivity imaging provided areal extension of borehole information from sampled profiles. These images indicate narrowly focused recharge beneath the Amargosa River channel, flanked by large tracts of recharge-free basin floor.

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

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