Evaluating connection of aquifers to springs and streams, Great Basin National Park and vicinity, Nevada

Professional Paper 1819
Prepared in cooperation with the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service
By: , and 



Federal agencies that oversee land management for much of the Snake Range in eastern Nevada, including the management of Great Basin National Park by the National Park Service, need to understand the potential extent of adverse effects to federally managed lands from nearby groundwater development. As a result, this study was developed (1) to attain a better understanding of aquifers controlling groundwater flow on the eastern side of the southern part of the Snake Range and their connection with aquifers in the valleys, (2) to evaluate the relation between surface water and groundwater along the piedmont slopes, (3) to evaluate sources for Big Springs and Rowland Spring, and (4) to assess groundwater flow from southern Spring Valley into northern Hamlin Valley. The study focused on two areas—the first, a northern area along the east side of Great Basin National Park that included Baker, Lehman, and Snake Creeks, and a second southern area that is the potential source area for Big Springs. Data collected specifically for this study included the following: (1) geologic field mapping; (2) drilling, testing, and water quality sampling from 7 test wells; (3) measuring discharge and water chemistry of selected creeks and springs; (4) measuring streambed hydraulic gradients and seepage rates from 18 shallow piezometers installed into the creeks; and (5) monitoring stream temperature along selected reaches to identify places of groundwater inflow.

The Snake Range was formed by a generally normal-faulted uplift, where late Proterozoic and Cambrian siliciclastic rocks and metamorphic rocks are present at the highest altitudes and younger Paleozoic carbonate rocks are exposed along the flanks. The consolidated rocks are intruded by Jurassic to Tertiary age plutons, which are most common between the Lehman and Snake Creek drainage basins. Older Cenozoic rocks, including Oligocene volcanic rocks and Miocene sedimentary rocks, crop out locally and fill the basins that underlie Snake, Spring, and Hamlin Valleys. Younger Tertiary and Quaternary sedimentary (basin-fill) deposits overlie the older Cenozoic rocks.

The rocks and deposits can be divided into three distinct aquifers. These aquifers include (1) basin-fill aquifers that consist of the permeable parts of the Cenozoic basin fill and some fractured or jointed Cenozoic volcanic rocks, (2) an upper carbonate-rock aquifer that consists of upper Paleozoic carbonate rocks overlying a regionally extensive middle Paleozoic siliciclastic confining unit, and (3) a lower carbonate-rock aquifer that consists of lower Paleozoic carbonate rocks. Secondary openings created by faults, shear zones, fractures, and, in the carbonate rocks, karst solution features, largely determine the water-transmitting properties of the volcanic- and carbonate-rock aquifers. The basin-fill aquifers are composed of a wide variety of rock types and have highly variable hydraulic properties. The three aquifers are stratigraphically and structurally heterogeneous, causing large variations in the ability to store and transmit water. The aquifers are separated by confining units in some areas and are in contact with each other in other areas, yet function as a single, composite aquifer system. Basin-fill aquifers most often overlie or adjoin the lower and upper carbonate-rock aquifers.

Baker, Lehman and Snake Creek drainage basins were divided into five hydrologic zones on the basis of climate, geology, and topography. The five zones, from highest to lowest altitudes, are the mountain-upland, karst-limestone, upper-piedmont, lower-piedmont, and valley-lowland zones. The primary hydrologic connection between the mountain-upland and the valley-lowland zones is streamflow. Much of the streamflow from the mountain-upland zone is generated above tree line.

Groundwater flow increases in the karst-limestone zone because of increased permeability caused by dissolution, which results in increased streamflow losses. Most of the increased groundwater flow is to springs near faults that form the boundary with the upper-piedmont zone. Thus, groundwater flow from the karst-limestone zone to the upper-piedmont zone was only 10 percent of the combined flow of streams and springs that exit the karst-limestone zone. About 60 percent of the water flowing from Rowland Spring in the Lehman Creek drainage basin was from streamflow losses along Baker Creek. The remaining flow from Rowland Spring comes from local recharge in the karst-limestone zone.

In the upper-piedmont zone, the water table by Baker, Lehman and Snake Creeks was near the water level in the creeks for several hundred feet downstream from the karst-limestone zone. Water levels in piezometers along Snake Creek downstream from its confluence with Spring Creek were far below the streambed, indicating gravity drainage beneath this section of the creek. Estimated vertical hydraulic conductivity along a 3-mile reach of Snake Creek downstream of this confluence was 0.5 foot per day, which was an order of magnitude less than that estimated for Baker and Lehman Creeks. The low vertical hydraulic conductivity in the streambed along the lower reaches of Snake Creek results from chemical precipitation of calcite caused by off-gassing of carbon dioxide derived from springs at the end of the karst-limestone zone.

The younger alluvial deposits thicken rapidly across faults that form the upper boundary of the lower-piedmont zone. The absence of springs or groundwater flow to the creeks upstream of these faults indicates they are not a complete barrier to groundwater flow. The water table was shallow in the valley-lowland zone in the Baker and Lehman Creek drainage basins, whereas the water table was more than 50 feet below land surface in the Snake Creek drainage basin. In contrast to thick basin fill in the valley-lowland zone in the Baker and Lehman Creek drainage basins, fractured and karst limestone underlie basin fill at relatively shallow depths in Snake Creek drainage basin. The underlying limestone acts as a drain for groundwater in the basin fill beneath Snake Creek.

A groundwater divide in southern Spring Valley south of Baking Powder Flat separates groundwater flow to the flat from southeastward flow into northern Hamlin Valley. Groundwater flow from southern Spring Valley south of the groundwater divide into northern Hamlin Valley was estimated to range from 6,000 to 11,000 acre-feet per year. This groundwater does not flow to Big Springs in southern Snake Valley; rather, the source of water to Big Springs is groundwater recharge in the Big Spring Wash drainage basin and in nearby smaller drainage basins at the south end of the Snake Range.

Groundwater flow from southern Spring Valley continues through the western side of Hamlin Valley before being directed northeast toward the south end of Snake Valley. This flow is constrained by southward-flowing groundwater from Big Spring Wash and northward-flowing groundwater beneath central Hamlin Valley. The redirection to the northeast corresponds to a narrowing of the width of flow in southern Snake Valley caused by a constriction formed by a steeply dipping middle Paleozoic siliciclastic confining unit exposed in the flanks of the mountains and hills on the east side of southern Snake Valley and shallowly buried beneath basin fill in the valley. The narrowing of groundwater flow could be responsible for the large area where groundwater flows to springs or is lost to evapotranspiration between Big Springs in Nevada and Pruess Lake in Utah.

Suggested Citation

Prudic, D.E, Sweetkind, D.S., Jackson, T.R., Dotson, K.E., Plume, R.W., Hatch, C.E., and Halford, K.J. 2015, Evaluating connection of aquifers to springs and streams, Great Basin National Park and vicinity, Nevada: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1819, 188 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/pp1819.

ISSN: 2330-7102 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Description of Geologic and Hydrogeologic Investigations
  • Geologic Setting
  • Hydrologic Setting
  • Baker and Lehman Creek Drainage Basins
  • Snake Creek Drainage Basin
  • Big Springs
  • Limitations and Considerations
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Glossary
  • Appendixes 1-16
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Evaluating connection of aquifers to springs and streams, Great Basin National Park and vicinity, Nevada
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 1819
DOI 10.3133/pp1819
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Nevada Water Science Center
Description Report: xxii, 187 p.; Appendixes 1-16
Country United States
State Nevada
County Lincoln County, White Pine County
Other Geospatial Baker Creek, Big Springs, Great Basin National Park, Hamlin Valley, Lehman Creek, Rowland Spring, Snake Range, Spring Valley, Snake Creek
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details