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Scientific Investigations Report 2012-5196

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management, National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office, under Interagency Agreement DE-NA0001654

Conceptualization of the Predevelopment Groundwater Flow System and Transient Water-Level Responses in Yucca Flat, Nevada National Security Site, Nevada

By Joseph M. Fenelon, Donald S. Sweetkind, Peggy E. Elliott, and Randell J. Laczniak

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (14.4 MB) Abstract

Contaminants introduced into the subsurface of Yucca Flat, Nevada National Security Site, by underground nuclear testing are of concern to the U.S. Department of Energy and regulators responsible for protecting human health and safety. The potential for contaminant movement away from the underground test areas and into the accessible environment is greatest by groundwater transport. The primary hydrologic control on this transport is evaluated and examined through a set of contour maps developed to represent the hydraulic-head distribution within the two major aquifer systems underlying the area. Aquifers and confining units within these systems were identified and their extents delineated by merging and analyzing hydrostratigraphic framework models developed by other investigators from existing geologic information. Maps of the hydraulic-head distributions in the major aquifer systems were developed from a detailed evaluation and assessment of available water-level measurements. The maps, in conjunction with regional and detailed hydrogeologic cross sections, were used to conceptualize flow within and between aquifer systems.

Aquifers and confining units are mapped and discussed in general terms as being one of two aquifer systems: alluvial–volcanic or carbonate. The carbonate aquifers are subdivided and mapped as independent regional and local aquifers, based on the continuity of their component rock. Groundwater flow directions, approximated from potentiometric contours, are indicated on the maps and sections and discussed for the alluvial–volcanic and regional carbonate aquifers. Flow in the alluvial–volcanic aquifer generally is constrained by the bounding volcanic confining unit, whereas flow in the regional carbonate aquifer is constrained by the siliceous confining unit. Hydraulic heads in the alluvial–volcanic aquifer typically range from 2,400 to 2,530 feet and commonly are elevated about 20–100 feet above heads in the underlying regional carbonate aquifer. Flow directions in the alluvial–volcanic aquifer are variable and are controlled by localized areas where small amounts of water can drain into the regional carbonate aquifer. These areas commonly are controlled by geologic structures, such as Yucca fault. Flow in the regional carbonate aquifer generally drains to the center of the basin; from there flow is to the south-southeast out of the study area toward downgradient discharge areas. Southward flow in the regional carbonate aquifer occurs in a prominent potentiometric trough that results from a faulted zone of enhanced permeability centered about Yucca fault. Vertical hydraulic gradients between the aquifer systems are downward throughout the study area; however, flow from the alluvial–volcanic aquifer into the underlying carbonate aquifer is believed to be minor because of the intervening confining unit.

Transient water levels were identified and analyzed to understand hydraulic responses to stresses in Yucca Flat. Transient responses have only a minimal influence on the general predevelopment flow directions in the aquifers. The two primary anthropogenic stresses on the groundwater system since about 1950 are nuclear testing and pumping. Most of the potentiometric response in the aquifers to pumping or past nuclear testing is interim and localized. Persistent, long-lasting changes in hydraulic head caused by nuclear testing occur only in confining units where groundwater fluxes are negligible. A third stress on the groundwater system is natural recharge, which can cause minor, short- and long-term changes in water levels. Long-term hydrographs affected by natural recharge, grouped by similar trend, cluster in distinct areas of Yucca Flat and are controlled primarily by spatial differences in local recharge patterns.

First posted October 2, 2012

For additional information contact:
Director, Nevada Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2730 N. Deer Run Road
Carson City, Nevada 89701

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Suggested citation:

Fenelon, J.M., Sweetkind, D.S., Elliott, P.E., and Laczniak, R.J., 2012, Conceptualization of the predevelopment groundwater flow system and transient water-level responses in Yucca Flat, Nevada National Security Site, Nevada: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012-5196, 61 p.




Study Methods

Hydrogeologic Framework

Predevelopment Flow

Transient Stresses

Flow Conceptualization

Limitations and Considerations

References Cited

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