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Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5124

Groundwater Resources Program

Hydrogeologic Framework and Hydrologic Budget Components of the Columbia Plateau Regional Aquifer System, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho

By S.C. Kahle, D.S. Morgan, W.B. Welch, D.M. Ely, S.R. Hinkle, J.J. Vaccaro, and L.L. Orzol

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (X MB)Abstract

The Columbia Plateau Regional Aquifer System (CPRAS) covers an area of about 44,000 square miles in a structural and topographic basin within the drainage of the Columbia River in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The primary aquifers are basalts of the Columbia River Basalt Group (CRBG) and overlying sediment. Eighty percent of the groundwater use in the study area is for irrigation, in support of a $6 billion per year agricultural economy. Water-resources issues in the Columbia Plateau include competing agricultural, domestic, and environmental demands. Groundwater levels were measured in 470 wells in 1984 and 2009; water levels declined in 83 percent of the wells, and declines greater than 25 feet were measured in 29 percent of the wells.

Conceptually, the system is a series of productive basalt aquifers consisting of permeable interflow zones separated by less permeable flow interiors; in places, sedimentary aquifers overly the basalts. The aquifer system of the CPRAS includes seven hydrogeologic units—the overburden aquifer, three aquifer units in the permeable basalt rock, two confining units, and a basement confining unit. The overburden aquifer includes alluvial and colluvial valley-fill deposits; the three basalt units are the Saddle Mountains, Wanapum, and Grande Ronde Basalts and their intercalated sediments. The confining units are equivalent to the Saddle Mountains-Wanapum and Wanapum-Grande Ronde interbeds, referred to in this study as the Mabton and Vantage Interbeds, respectively. The basement confining unit, referred to as Older Bedrock, consists of pre-CRBG rocks that generally have much lower permeabilities than the basalts and are considered the base of the regional flow system. Based on specific-capacity data, median horizontal hydraulic conductivity (Kh) values for the overburden, basalt units, and bedrock are 161, 70, and 6 feet per day, respectively.

Analysis of oxygen isotopes in water and carbon isotopes in dissolved inorganic carbon from groundwater samples indicates that groundwater in the CPRAS ranges in age from modern (<50 years) to Pleistocene (>10,000 years). The oldest groundwater resides in deep, downgradient locations indicating that groundwater movement and replenishment in parts of this regional aquifer system have operated on long timescales under past natural conditions, which is consistent with the length and depth of long flow paths in the system.

The mean annual recharge from infiltration of precipitation for the 23-year period 1985–2007 was estimated to be 4.6 inches per year (14,980 cubic feet per second) using a polynomial regression equation based on annual precipitation and the results of recharge modeling done in the 1980s. A regional-scale hydrologic budget was developed using a monthly SOil WATer (SOWAT) Balance model to estimate irrigation-water demand, groundwater flux (recharge or discharge), direct runoff, and soil moisture within irrigated areas. Mean monthly irrigation throughout the study area peaks in July at 1.6 million acre-feet (MAF), of which 0.45 and 1.15 MAF are from groundwater and surface-water sources, respectively. Annual irrigation water use in the study area averaged 5.3 MAF during the period 1985–2007, with 1.4 MAF (or 26 percent) supplied from groundwater and 3.9 MAF supplied from surface water. Mean annual recharge from irrigation return flow in the study area was 4.2 MAF (1985–2007) with 2.1 MAF (50 percent) occurring within the predominately surface-water irrigated regions of the study area.

Annual groundwater-use estimates were made for public supply, self-supplied domestic, industrial, and other uses for the period 1984 through 2009. Public supply groundwater use within the study area increased from 200,600 acre‑feet per year (acre-ft/yr) in 1984 to 269,100 acre-ft/yr in 2009. Domestic self-supplied groundwater use increased from 54,580 acre-ft/yr in 1984 to 71,160 acre-ft/yr in 2009. Industrial groundwater use decreased from 53,390 acre-ft/yr in 1984 to 43,930 acre-ft/yr in 2009.

First posted August 2, 2011

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For additional information contact:
Director, Washington Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
934 Broadway, Suite 300
Tacoma, Washington 98402
http://wa.water.usgs.gov

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Suggested citation:

Kahle, S.C., Morgan, D.S., Welch, W.B., Ely, D.M., Hinkle, S.R., Vaccaro, J.J., and Orzol, L.L., 2011, Hydrogeologic framework and hydrologic budget components of the Columbia Plateau Regional Aquifer System, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5124, 66 p.



Contents

Abstract

Introduction

Purpose and Scope

Description of Study Area

Geologic Setting

Hydrogeologic Framework

Selected Hydrologic Budget Components

Summary and Conclusions

Acknowledgments

References Cited

Appendix A. Methods and Assumptions Used to Estimate Lateral Hydraulic Conductivity from Specific-Capacity Data


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