Characterization of Groundwater Quality and Discharge with Emphasis on Selenium in an Irrigated Agricultural Drainage near Delta, Colorado, 2017–19

Scientific Investigations Report 2020-5132
Prepared in cooperation with Colorado Water Conservation Board



Selenium is a water-quality constituent of concern for aquatic ecosystems in the lower Gunnison River Basin. Selenium is derived from bedrock of the Mancos Shale and is mobilized and transported to groundwater and surface water by application of irrigation water. Although it is recognized that groundwater contributes an appreciable amount of selenium to surface water, few studies have addressed interactions between the two. The U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board conducted a study during 2017–19 to characterize the quality and quantity of groundwater discharging to an agricultural drainage near Delta, Colorado, locally known as Sunflower Drain.

Water quality in the study area is characterized by high dissolved solids with elevated concentrations of selenium and nitrate resulting from dissolution of soluble salts in the Mancos Shale. Selenium concentrations have decreased by 50 percent since the early 2000s, possibly in response to irrigation system improvements. Stable water isotopes indicate streamflow is dominated by canal water during the irrigation season (April to October) and, during the nonirrigation season (November to March), is dominated by groundwater that has undergone some degree of evaporation. Pesticide and pharmaceutical compounds were infrequently detected, and results indicate they were derived from sources outside the study area such that they do not appear to be useful as tracers of groundwater sources. Stable isotopes of nitrate indicate that nitrate originates from the Mancos Shale, and the isotopic composition is enriched by denitrification in the groundwater system. Using a mass-balance approach, estimated groundwater discharge rates to Sunflower Drain ranged from 0.15 to 0.27 cubic feet per second per mile with one losing reach identified. Selenium, sulfate, and nitrate concentrations in groundwater estimated by mass-balance calculations were similar to concentrations measured in the Poly 17 observation well, located in a largely irrigated area in east tributary. One tributary reach had higher concentrations of selenium, sulfate, and nitrate likely reflecting localized inputs of more concentrated groundwater, similar to the concentrations in the Poly 7 observation well, which is downgradient from a residential area in the west tributary.

Three pilot studies were conducted, including fiber optic distributed temperature sensing to detect groundwater discharge zones in the stream channel, a passive seismic technique to estimate depth to bedrock, and use of radon-222 as a geochemical tracer of groundwater discharge. All three techniques show promise as additional approaches for investigating groundwater discharge surface-water systems in irrigated drainage areas on Mancos Shale.

The factors that affect groundwater movement mainly include when and where irrigation water is transported and applied, and the distribution of bedrock of the Mancos Shale and overlying alluvial deposits. The average groundwater recharge rate for the study area was estimated at 8.1 inches per year, based on mass balance calculations from synoptic survey data. Along the western tributary of Sunflower Drain, there was evidence that spills from the East Canal may recharge the groundwater aquifer adjacent to the stream channel. Groundwater movement to the stream channel may be controlled by the topography of the alluvial/bedrock interface or focused along human-made features, such as tile drains and ditches constructed around irrigated fields. On larger scales, the top of bedrock was also important, creating a topographic constriction that caused a zone of groundwater discharge. The groundwater system is complex, and further study could better define the system, possibly through application of a groundwater flow model and more extensive studies using some of the exploratory methods evaluated in this study.

Suggested Citation

Mast, M.A., 2021, Characterization of groundwater quality and discharge with emphasis on selenium in an irrigated agricultural drainage near Delta, Colorado, 2017–19: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2020–5132, 34 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Hydrologic Conditions
  • Water Quality of Sunflower Drain with Emphasis on Selenium
  • Groundwater Discharge Rates and Concentrations
  • Exploratory Studies of Groundwater
  • Conceptual Model of Groundwater Recharge and Discharge in Sunflower Drain
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Characterization of groundwater quality and discharge with emphasis on selenium in an irrigated agricultural drainage near Delta, Colorado, 2017–19
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2020-5132
DOI 10.3133/sir20205132
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston VA
Contributing office(s) Colorado Water Science Center
Description Report: vi, 34 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State Colorado
City Delta
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details