Ground-Water Resources Program; National Research Program

U.S. Geological Survey
Professional Paper 1703-G

Ground-Water Recharge from Small Intermittent Streams in the Western Mojave Desert, California

By John A. Izbicki, Russell U. Johnson, Justin Kulongoski, and Steven Predmore


Location of study area in the western Mojave Desert, southern California (from figure 1).


Population growth has impacted ground-water resources in the western Mojave Desert, where declining water levels suggest that recharge rates have not kept pace with withdrawals. Recharge from the Mojave River, the largest hydrographic feature in the study area, is relatively well characterized. In contrast, recharge from numerous smaller streams that convey runoff from the bounding mountains is poorly characterized. The current study examined four representative streams to assess recharge from these intermittent sources. Hydraulic, thermal, geomorphic, chemical, and isotopic data were used to study recharge processes, from streamflow generation and infiltration to percolation through the unsaturated zone. Ground-water movement away from recharge areas was also assessed.

Infiltration in amounts sufficient to have a measurable effect on subsurface temperature profiles did not occur in every year in instrumented study reaches. In addition to streamflow availability, results showed the importance of sediment texture in controlling infiltration and eventual recharge. Infiltration amounts of about 0.7 meters per year were an approximate threshold for the occurrence of ground-water recharge. Estimated travel times through the thick unsaturated zones underlying channels reached several hundred years. Recharging fluxes were influenced by stratigraphic complexity and depositional dynamics. Because of channel meandering, not all water that penetrates beneath the root zone can be assumed to become recharge on active alluvial fans.

Away from study washes, elevated chloride concentrations and highly negative water potentials beneath the root zone indicated negligible recharge from direct infiltration of precipitation under current climatic conditions. In upstream portions of washes, generally low subsurface chloride concentrations and near-zero water potentials indicated downward movement of water toward the water table, driven primarily by gravity. Recharging conditions did not extend to the distal ends of all washes. Where urbanization had concentrated spatially distributed runoff into a small number of fixed channels, enhanced infiltration induced recharging conditions, mobilizing accumulated chloride.

Estimated amounts of ground-water recharge from the studied reaches were small. Extrapolating on the basis of drainage areas, the estimated aggregate recharge from small intermittent streams is minor compared to recharge from the Mojave River. Recharge is largely controlled by streamflow availability, which primarily reflects precipitation patterns. Precipitation in the Mojave Desert is strongly controlled by topography. Cool moist air masses from the Pacific Ocean are mostly blocked from entering the desert by the high mountains bordering its southern edge. Storms do, however, readily enter the region through Cajon Pass. These storms generate flow in the Mojave River that often reaches Afton Canyon, more than 150 kilometers downstream. The isotopic composition of ground water reflects the localization of recharge beneath the Mojave River. Similar processes occur near San Gorgonio Pass, 75 kilometers southeast from Cajon Pass along the bounding San Andreas Fault.

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For questions about the content of this report, contact John Izbicki

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