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Scientific Investigations Report 2006–5156

Prepared in cooperation with the New Mexico Environment Department

Questa Baseline and Pre-Mining Ground-Water Quality Investigation. 17. Geomorphology of the Red River Valley, Taos County, New Mexico, and Influence on Ground-Water Flow in the Shallow Alluvial Aquifer

By Kirk R. Vincent


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In April 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) began a cooperative study to infer the pre-mining ground-water chemistry at the Molycorp molybdenum mine site in the Red River Valley of north-central New Mexico. This report is one in a series of reports that can be used to determine pre-mining ground-water conditions at the mine site. Molycorp’s Questa molybdenum mine in the Red River Valley, northern New Mexico, is located near the margin of the Questa caldera in a highly mineralized region.

The bedrock of the Taos Range surrounding the Red River is composed of Proterozoic rocks of various types, which are intruded and overlain by Oligocene volcanic rocks associated with the Questa caldera. Locally, these rocks were altered by hydrothermal activity. The alteration zones that contain sulfide minerals are particularly important because they constitute the commercial ore bodies of the region and, where exposed to weathering, form sites of rapid erosion referred to as alteration scars. Over the past thousand years, if not over the entire Holocene, erosion rates were spatially variable. Forested hillslopes eroded at about 0.04 millimeter per year, whereas alteration scars eroded at about 2.7 millimeters per year. The erosion rate of the alteration scars is unusually rapid for naturally occurring sites that have not been disturbed by humans. Watersheds containing large alteration scars delivered more sediment to the Red River Valley than the Red River could remove. Consequently, large debris fans, as much as 80 meters thick, developed within the valley.

The geomorphology of the Red River Valley has had several large influences on the hydrology of the shallow alluvial aquifer, and those influences were in effect before the onset of mining within the watershed.  Several reaches where alluvial ground water emerges to become Red River streamflow were observed by a tracer dilution study conducted in 2001. The aquifer narrows where erosion-resistant bedrock, which tends to form vertical cliffs, restricts the width of the valley bottom.  Although the presence of a shallow bedrock sill, overlain by shallow alluvium, is a plausible cause of ground-water emergence, this cause was not demonstrated in the study area. The water-table gradient can locally decrease in the downstream direction because of changes in the hydraulic properties of the alluvium, and this may be a contributing cause of ground-water emergence. However, at one site (near Cabin Springs), ground-water emergence could not be explained by spatial changes in geometric or hydraulic properties of the aquifer. Furthermore, the available evidence demonstrates that ground water flowing through bedrock fractures or colluvium entered the north side of the alluvial aquifer, and is the cause of ground-water emergence. At that location the alluvial aquifer was already flowing full, causing the excess water to emerge into the stream.

An indirect consequence of altered rock in the tributary watersheds is the rapid erosion rate of alteration scars combined with the hydraulic properties of sediments shed from those scars.  Where alteration scars are large the debris fans at the mouths of the tributary watersheds substantially encroach into the Red River Valley. At such locations debris-fan materials dominate the width and thickness of the alluvium in the valley and reduce the rate of flow of ground water within the Red River alluvial aquifer.  Most sites of groundwater emergence are located immediately upstream from or along the margins of debris fans. A substantial fraction of the ground water approaching a debris fan can emerge to become streamflow. This last observation has three implications. First, very little water can flow the entire length of the study area entirely within the alluvial aquifer because the ground water repeatedly contacts debris-fan sediments over that length. Second, it follows that emerging water containing unique elemental constituents must have entered the alluvial aquifer at a relatively short distance upstream. Third, a gravel aquifer downstream from a large debris fan can transmit more ground water than flows into it through the debris fan. This observation explains how the water table can be naturally, and permanently, located well beneath the level of the bed of a perennial stream.

Version 1.0

Posted September 2008

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Suggested citation:

Vincent, K.R., 2008, Questa baseline and pre-mining ground-water quality investigation. 17. Geomorphology of the Red River Valley, Taos County, New Mexico, and influence on ground-water flow in the shallow alluvial aquifer:  U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2006–5156, p. 50, 1 pl.



Geomorphic History
Geometry of Alluvial Aquifer
Influence of Geomorphology on Ground-Water Flow in the Shallow Alluvial Aquifer
References Cited

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