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Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5294

Hydrogeology of the Mogollon Highlands, Central Arizona

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Prepared in cooperation with the

By John T.C. Parker, Willliam C. Steinkampf, and Marilyn E. Flynn


The Mogollon Highlands, 4,855 square miles of rugged, mountainous terrain at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau in central Arizona, is characterized by a bedrock-dominated hydrologic system that results in an incompletely integrated regional ground-water system, flashy streamflow, and various local water-bearing zones that are sensitive to drought. Increased demand on the water resources of the area as a result of recreational activities and population growth have made necessary an increased understanding of the hydrogeology of the region. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted a study of the geology and hydrology of the region in cooperation with the Arizona Department of Water Resources under the auspices of the Arizona Rural Watershed Initiative, a program launched in 1998 to assist rural areas in dealing with water-resources issues. The study involved the analysis of geologic maps, surface-water and ground-water flow, and water and rock chemical data and spatial relationships to characterize the hydrogeologic framework.

The study area includes the southwestern corner of the Colorado Plateau and the Mogollon Rim, which is the eroded edge of the plateau. A 3,000- to 4,000-foot sequence of early to late Paleozoic sedimentary rocks forms the generally south-facing scarp of the Mogollon Rim. The area adjacent to the edge of the Mogollon Rim is an erosional landscape of rolling, step-like terrain exposing Proterozoic metamorphic and granitic rocks. Farther south, the Sierra Ancha and Mazatzal Mountain ranges, which are composed of various Proterozoic rocks, flank an alluvial basin filled with late Cenozoic sediments and volcanic flows. Eight streams with perennial to intermittent to ephemeral flow drain upland regions of the Mogollon Rim and flow into the Salt River on the southern boundary or the Verde River on the western boundary. Ground-water flow paths generally are controlled by large-scale fracture systems or by karst features in carbonate rocks. Stream channels are also largely controlled by structural features, such as regional joint or fault systems. Precipitation, which shows considerable variability in amount and intensity, recharges the ground-water system along the crest of the Mogollon Rim and to a lesser extent along the crests and flanks of the rim and the Mazatzal Mountains and Sierra Ancha. Flashy runoff in the mainly bedrock stream channels is typical. Springs are distributed throughout the region, typically discharging at or above the contact of variably permeable formations along the face of the Mogollon Rim with a scattering of low-discharge springs in the Proterozoic rocks below the rim.

The surface of the Colorado Plateau is the primary recharge area for the C aquifer in which ground-water flows north toward the Little Colorado River and south toward the Mogollon Highlands. Within the study area, flow from the C aquifer primarily discharges from large, stable springs in the upper East Verde River, Tonto Creek, and Canyon Creek Basins along the top of the Mogollon Rim and to the west as base flow in West Clear Creek. On the basis of chemical evidence and the distribution and flow characteristics of springs and perennial streams, the C aquifer is also the source of water for the limestone aquifer that discharges from carbonate rocks near the base of the Mogollon Rim. Vertical flow from the C aquifer, the base of which is in the Schnebly Hill Formation, recharges the limestone aquifer that discharges mainly at Fossil Springs in the western part of the study area and as base flow in Cibecue Creek on the eastern edge of the study area.

Local, generally shallow aquifers of variable productivity occur in plateau and mesa-capping basalts in the sedimentary rocks of the Schnebly Hill and Supai Formations, in fractured zones of the Proterozoic Payson granite, and in the alluvium of the lower Tonto Creek Basin. Where time series data exist, such water-bearing zones are shown to be sensitive to short-term climatic fluctuations, in particular, the drought which began in the mid-1990s and continued during the course of this study.

A regional water budget for the C and limestone aquifers was developed from precipitation, spring, and streamflow data. Of an estimated 1,730,000 acre-feet of precipitation that falls on the Mogollon Rim annually, about 8 percent is estimated to recharge the regional aquifers. About 40 percent of recharge to the limestone aquifer is estimated to be leakage from the overlying C aquifer.


Description of the study area
Water chemistry
Hydrogeologic framework and conceptual model
Water budget
Additional data needs
Summary and conclusions
References cited

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