Large volumes of ground water are contained in alluvial and bedrock aquifers in the semiarid Denver basin of eastern Colorado. The bedrock aquifer, for example, contains 1.2 times as much water as Lake Erie of the Great Lakes, yet it supplies only about 9 percent of the ground water used in the basin. Although this seems to indicate underutilization of this valuable water supply, this is not necessarily the case, for many factors other than the volume of water in the aquifer affect the use of the aquifer. Such factors as climatic conditions, precipitation runoff, geology and water-yielding character of the aquifers, water-level conditions, volume of recharge and discharge, legal and economic constraints, and water-quality conditions can ultimately affect the decision to use ground water. Knowledge of the function and interaction of the various parts of this hydrologic system is important to the proper management and use of the ground-water resources of the region.
The semiarid climatic conditions on the Colorado plains produce flash floods of short duration and large peak-flow rates. However, snowmelt runoff from the Rocky Mountains produces the largest volumes of water and is typically of longer duration with smaller peak-flow rates. The alluvial aquifer is recharged easily from both types of runoff and readily stores and transmits the water because it consists of relatively thin deposits of gravel, sand, and clay located in the valleys of principal streams. The bedrock aquifer is recharged less easily because of its greater thickness (as much as 3,000 feet) and prevalent layers of shale which retard the downward movement of water in the formations.
Although the bedrock aquifer contains more than 50 times as much water in storage as the alluvial aquifer, it does not store and transmit water as readily as the alluvial aquifer. For example, about 91 percent of the water pumped from wells is obtained from the alluvial aquifer, yet water-level declines generally have not exceeded 40 feet. By contrast, only 9 percent of the water pumped from wells is obtained from the bedrock aquifer, yet water-level declines in this aquifer have exceeded 500 feet in some areas.
Depth to water in the alluvial aquifer generally is less than 40 feet, while depth to water in the bedrock aquifer may exceed 1,000 feet in some areas. Cost of pumping water to the surface and cost of maintaining existing supplies in areas of rapidly declining water levels in the bedrock aquifer affect water use. Water use is also affected by the generally poorer quality water found in the alluvial aquifer and, to a lesser extent, by the greater susceptibility of the alluvial aquifer to pollution from surface sources.
Because of these factors, the alluvial aquifer is used primarily as a source of irrigation supply, which is the largest water use in the area. The bedrock aquifer is used primarily as a source of domestic or municipal supply, which is the smaller of the two principal uses, even though the bedrock aquifer contains 50 times more stored ground water than the alluvial aquifer.