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Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5040

Prepared in cooperation with the Arizona Department of Water Resources

Hydrology of the Middle San Pedro Watershed, Southeastern Arizona

By Jeffrey T. Cordova, Jesse E. Dickinson, Kimberly R. Beisner, Candice B. Hopkins, Jeffrey R. Kennedy, D.R. Pool, Edward P. Glenn, Pamela L. Nagler, and Blakemore E. Thomas

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (8 MB)Abstract

In the middle San Pedro Watershed in southeastern Arizona, groundwater is the primary source of water supply for municipal, domestic, industrial, and agricultural use. The watershed comprises two smaller subareas, the Benson subarea and the Narrows-Redington subarea. Early 21st century projections for heavy population growth in the watershed have not yet become a reality, but increased groundwater withdrawals could have undesired consequences—such as decreased base flow to the San Pedro River, and groundwater-level declines—that would lead to the need to deepen existing wells. This report describes the hydrology, hydrochemistry, water quality, and development of a groundwater budget for the middle San Pedro Watershed, focusing primarily on the elements of groundwater movement that could be most useful for the development of a groundwater model

Precipitation data from Tombstone, Arizona, and base flow at the stream-gaging station on the San Pedro River at Charleston both show relatively dry periods during the 1960s through the mid-1980s and in the mid-1990s to 2009, and wetter periods from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. Water levels in four out of five wells near the mountain fronts show cyclical patterns of recharge, with rates of recharge greatest in the early 1980s through the mid-1990s. Three wells near the San Pedro River recorded their lowest levels during the 1950s to the mid-1960s. The water-level record from one well, completed in the confined part of the coarse-grained lower basin fill, showed a decline of approximately 21 meters.

Annual flow of the San Pedro River, measured at the Charleston and Redington gages, has decreased since the 1940s. The median annual streamflow and base flow at the gaging station on the river near Tombstone has decreased by 50 percent between the periods 1968–1986 and 1997–2009. Estimates of streamflow infiltration along the San Pedro River during 1914–2009 have decreased 44 percent, with the largest decreases in the months June–October in the Benson subarea. In the Narrows-Redington subarea, streamflow infiltration has decreased about 65 percent during 1914–2009.

The average annual outflow (27.6 hm3/year [cubic hectometers per year]) from the Benson subarea aquifer for water years 2001 through 2009 exceeded the inflows (20.0 hm3/ yr) by 7.60 hm3/yr. In the Narrows-Redington subarea for the same period, the average annual outflow (15.7 hm3/yr) from the aquifer system exceeded the inflows (13.8 hm3/yr) by nearly 2 hm3/yr. The largest withdrawals of groundwater in both subareas are for irrigation; these withdrawals peaked in 1973 and have been steadily decreasing since then. Recharge from streamflow infiltration exceeded recharge from the mountain-front and from ephemeral channels in the Benson subarea. In the Narrows-Redington subarea, however, recharge from mountain-front and ephemeral channel recharge exceeded recharge from streamflow infiltration. Evapotranspiration by phreatophytes accounts for the largest outflow of groundwater for both subareas—78 percent of the outflow in the Narrows-Redington subarea and 62 percent of the outflow in the Benson subarea.

Precipitation, surface-water, and groundwater chemistry and isotope data indicated the relative age and residence time of groundwater, the amount of interaction between geologic sources and groundwater, and how recharge elevation and season were related to the presence of modern water. The bedrock aquifer receives modern recharge (<50 years old) that is a mix of both summer and winter precipitation; water in the fractured system has very little time to interact with the surrounding rock matrix. The unconfined basin-fill aquifer shows evidence of some modern recharge from multiple recharge seasons and altitudes; water has a long residence time with potential for increased water-rock interaction. The confined basin-fill aquifer does not receive a significant amount of modern recharge, and water has a long residence time with potential for increased water-rock interaction. The alluvial aquifer primarily receives modern recharge during the summer monsoon season by floodwater in the river.

First posted May 5, 2015

For additional information, contact:
Director, Arizona Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
520 N. Park Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85719

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Suggested citation:

Cordova, J.T., Dickinson, J.E., Beisner, K.R., Hopkins, C.B., Kennedy, J.R., Pool, D.R., Glenn, E.P., Nagler, P.L., and Thomas, B.E., 2015, Hydrology of the middle San Pedro Watershed, southeastern Arizona: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5040, 77 p.,

ISSN 2328-0328 (online)






Surface Water


Groundwater Budgets

Groundwater Discharge

Hydrochemistry and Water Quality

Study Limitations and Considerations for Future Data Collection and Analysis

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited


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