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Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5051

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Quality of Groundwater in the Denver Basin Aquifer System, Colorado, 2003–5

By MaryLynn Musgrove, Jennifer A. Beck, Suzanne S. Paschke, Nancy J. Bauch, and Shana L. Mashburn

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (6.41 MB)Abstract

Groundwater resources from alluvial and bedrock aquifers of the Denver Basin are critical for municipal, domestic, and agricultural uses in Colorado along the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains. Rapid and widespread urban development, primarily along the western boundary of the Denver Basin, has approximately doubled the population since about 1970, and much of the population depends on groundwater for water supply. As part of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted groundwater-quality studies during 2003–5 in the Denver Basin aquifer system to characterize water quality of shallow groundwater at the water table and of the bedrock aquifers, which are important drinking-water resources. For the Denver Basin, water-quality constituents of concern for human health or because they might otherwise limit use of water include total dissolved solids, fluoride, sulfate, nitrate, iron, manganese, selenium, radon, uranium, arsenic, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds. For the water-table studies, two monitoring-well networks were installed and sampled beneath agricultural (31 wells) and urban (29 wells) land uses at or just below the water table in either alluvial material or near-surface bedrock. For the bedrock-aquifer studies, domestic- and municipal-supply wells completed in the bedrock aquifers were sampled. The bedrock aquifers, stratigraphically from youngest (shallowest) to oldest (deepest), are the Dawson, Denver, Arapahoe, and Laramie-Fox Hills aquifers. The extensive dataset collected from wells completed in the bedrock aquifers (79 samples) provides the opportunity to evaluate factors and processes affecting water quality and to establish a baseline that can be used to characterize future changes in groundwater quality. Groundwater samples were analyzed for inorganic, organic, isotopic, and age-dating constituents and tracers. This report discusses spatial and statistical distributions of chemical constituents and evaluates natural and human-related processes that affect water quality. Findings are synthesized to assess the vulnerability of the Denver Basin aquifer system to groundwater contamination.

The chemistry of groundwater samples collected from the water-table wells was generally different from that of samples collected from the bedrock-aquifer wells. Samples from the water-table wells tended to have higher concentrations of total dissolved solids and most major ions. Concentrations of several constituents with potential human-health concerns, including nitrate, selenium, uranium, and arsenic, decreased with depth and were highest in samples from the water-table wells. Exceedances of drinking-water standards and water-quality benchmarks were more frequently associated with shallow groundwater samples; concentrations of total dissolved solids and sulfate exceeded water-quality benchmarks for about half or more of samples from the water-table wells. The sediments and rocks of the Denver Basin are natural sources of the trace elements selenium, uranium, and arsenic, which affect their concentrations in groundwater. Detections of organic contaminants, which are typically indicative of human sources of contamination to groundwater, were more frequent in samples from the water-table wells. Pesticide compounds and volatile organic compounds were detected in 33 and 62 percent, respectively, of water-table well samples. Detected organic contaminant concentrations were much less than the associated drinking-water standards. Samples collected from the bedrock aquifers had lower concentrations of total dissolved solids than did samples collected from the water-table wells, although within the bedrock-aquifer samples, concentrations increased from the Dawson to Denver to Arapahoe to Laramie-Fox Hills aquifers. Concentrations of total dissolved solids and many constituents varied spatially and with depth in the bedrock aquifers, likely as a result of ion-exchange and oxidation-reduction reactions, which are important processes affecting water quality. Major-ion chemistry generally evolved from a calcium-bicarbonate to calcium-sulfate composition, with some sodium-bicarbonate and sodium-sulfate facies in the deeper bedrock aquifers, likely resulting from longer residence times and more extensive water-rock interaction. Oxidation-reduction conditions generally evolved from oxic at the water table to anoxic with increasing depth in the bedrock aquifers. Most samples from the bedrock aquifers were anoxic. Exceedances of drinking-water standards and water-quality benchmarks for the bedrock aquifers occurred in 1 percent or less of samples for nitrate, selenium, or arsenic; there were no exceedances for uranium. Exceedances for total dissolved solids, sulfate, manganese, and iron were generally between about 10 and 20 percent for the bedrock-aquifer samples. Radon concentrations, which were only measured in samples collected from two of the bedrock aquifers, exceeded the lower proposed drinking-water standard for more than 90 percent of samples but exceeded the higher alternative standard for less than 5 percent of samples. Pesticide compounds and volatile organic compounds were detected in 3 and 22 percent, respectively, of bedrock-aquifer samples, all at concentrations that were that were much less than drinking-water standards.

Water-quality data were synthesized to evaluate factors that affect spatial and depth variability in water quality and to assess aquifer vulnerability to contaminants from geologic materials and those of human origin. The quality of shallow groundwater in the alluvial aquifer and shallow bedrock aquifer system has been adversely affected by development of agricultural and urban areas. Land use has altered the pattern and composition of recharge. Increased recharge from irrigation water has mobilized dissolved constituents and increased concentrations in the shallow groundwater. Concentrations of most constituents associated with poor or degraded water quality in shallow groundwater decreased with depth; many of these constituents are not geochemically conservative and are affected by geochemical reactions such as oxidation-reduction reactions. Groundwater age tracers provide additional insight into aquifer vulnerability and help determine if young groundwater of potentially poor quality has migrated to deeper parts of the bedrock aquifers used for drinking-water supply. Age-tracer results were used to group samples into categories of young, mixed, and old groundwater. Groundwater ages transitioned from mostly young in the water-table wells to mostly mixed in the shallowest bedrock aquifer, the Dawson aquifer, to mostly old in the deeper bedrock aquifers. Although the bedrock aquifers are mostly old groundwater of good water quality, several lines of evidence indicate that young, contaminant-bearing recharge has reached shallow to moderate depths in some areas of the bedrock aquifers. The Dawson aquifer is the most vulnerable of the bedrock aquifers to contamination, but results indicate that the older (deeper) bedrock aquifers are also vulnerable to groundwater contamination and that mixing with young recharge has occurred in some areas. Heavy pumping has caused water-level declines in the bedrock aquifers in some parts of the Denver Basin, which has the potential to enhance the transport of contaminants from overlying units. Results of this study are consistent with the existing conceptual understanding of aquifer processes and groundwater issues in the Denver Basin and add new insight into the vulnerability of the bedrock aquifers to groundwater contamination.

First posted August 11, 2014

For additional information contact:
Director, Colorado Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
Box 25046, Mail Stop 415
Denver, CO 80225

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Suggested citation:

Musgrove, M., Beck, J.A., Paschke, S.S., Bauch, N.J., and Mashburn, S.L., 2014, Quality of groundwater in the Denver Basin aquifer system, Colorado, 2003–5: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5051, 107 p.,

ISSN 2328-031X (print)

ISSN 2328-0328 (online)





Hydrogeologic Setting

Previous Studies


Quality of Groundwater in the Denver Basin Aquifer System

Synthesis: Vulnerability of the Denver Basin Aquifer System to Contamination

Denver Basin Groundwater Quality in a National Context


References Cited

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