The Middle Rio Grande Aquifer System

(Santa Fe Group)

Applied Hydrogeology GO571 Spring 2009

Middle Rio Grande Valley Map-Image. University of Colorado at Boulder.

·        Introduction

·        Geographic Range and History

·        Regional Climate

·        Hydrologic and Geologic Settings

·        Ground water Flow

·        Surface Water Relationship (Rio Grande River)

·        Water Resources

·        Groundwater Quality and Contamination

·        Conclusion

·        References



The increasing urban population has characterized the area of the Middle Rio Grande Basin of New Mexico as a limited water resources. The area is defined as Cochiti Lake extending downstream to the community of San Acacia, which encompasses the town of Albuquerque and the surrounding Albuquerque Basin. The Santa Fe Group aquifer system is composed of Santa Fe Group sediments consisting of approximately a 25 meter thick sequence of interbedded gravel, sand, silt, and clay of flood-plain and river-channel deposits of the Rio Grande River.

The inner valley around the Albuquerque area supports irrigated agriculture, but increasing urbanization and industrialization is replacing farmland. During the irrigation season water is diverted from the Rio Grande River directed to the Albuquerque area in a series of irrigation canals and smaller ditches as one of the main sources for water in Albuquerque’s semi-arid climate. The main source of recharge into ground water is the infiltration from irrigation canals and drains. Other sources of recharge are infiltration of sewage and precipitation. The main sources of discharge from the ground-water system are seepage into the riverside drains, withdrawal from wells, and evapotranspiration (Thorn and others, 1993).

The Middle Rio Grande Basin of central New Mexico has become a region of intense study and investigation by the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies to asses the water resources in the basin (Bartolino and Cole, 2002). The population within the basin, including the city of Albuquerque has significantly increased groundwater withdrawals and has ultimately produced severe declines in the groundwater levels.


Geographic Range and History

The Albuquerque Basin is one of the largest basins of the Rio Grande rift, spreading 3,060 square miles and containing the Santa Fe Group aquifer sediments reaching 14,000 feet thick (Thorn and others, 1993). The basin is surrounded by multiple mountain ranges including the Jemez Mountains to the north, the Sandia, Manzanita, Manzano, and Los Pinos Mountains to the east, and the Joyita Hills and Ladron Peak to the south. The city of Albuquerque lies at an average elevation of 1800 m above sea level (Hawley and Haase, 1992).

The Middle Rio Grande Basin incorporates the greatest metropolitan area in New Mexico. The largest urban development includes the city of Albuquerque, which is the most populated city in New Mexico. The city of Albuquerque was incorporated in 1885, soon after the arrival of the railroad. Growth of the city increased during World War II and throughout the development of adjacent military operations (Earp, D., Postlethwait, J., and Witherspoon, J. 1998). The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the city population spread to 518,000 in 2007, ranking it as the 34th-largest city in the U.S.  The city was considered the 6th fastest growing metropolitan area in America. Each community confined in the Middle Rio Grande Basin depends on ground water for domestic and industrialized uses.


Regional Climate

            The climate of the basin is characterized generally as semiarid, although parts of the surrounding mountain ranges represent a humid continental climate (Thorn and others, 1993). Differences in altitude produce variations in precipitation over the region. Lower altitudes within the basin such as the city of Albuquerque show average annual precipitation levels from 7.9 to 8.6 inches. Higher altitudes in mountainous areas produced mean precipitation levels of 19.0 and 14.3 inches. Total annual precipitation at any particular location within the basin can be largely variable from year to year, ranging from 3.29 to 15.88 inches (USGS).

Annual potential evaporation in the area is considerably greater than annual precipitation. Potential evaporation can range from nearly 50 inches in the eastern part of the basin to over 60 inches in the southern and central parts of the basin. Characteristics of the Middle Rio Grande Basin’s climate consist of large temperature changes and low humidity; in Albuquerque the average difference between daily temperatures was 14.9oC. High summer temperatures and relatively low humidity result in large evaporation rates. Evaporation is estimated to be around 50 cm per year (Thorn and others, 1993).!UserFiles/content_photos/skyline_scenic/acvb_EC_mtn_yucca.jpg

                                      Average monthly precipitation at the Albuquerque      Landscape and Climate of Albuquerque. Albuquerque Convention &.

                                                                        Airport, New Mexico, 1971-2000.                                     Visitors Bureau, 2009.


Hydrologic and Geologic Settings

Formations resulting from the Rio Grande rift started in the late Oligocene, about 32 million years ago and are continuing into the present (Russell and Snelson, 1990). The primary aquifer of the Middle Rio Grande Basin consists of unconsolidated to moderately consolidated sediments. The Santa Fe Group aquifer system includes both the Santa Fe Group deposits, which are of Oligocene to middle Pleistocene age, and newer deposited from flood-plain channels and basin-fill deposits of Pleistocene to Holocene age. The more recent deposits contain similar hydraulic properties to the Santa Fe Group (Connell and others (1998).

            Santa Fe Group aquifer ranges in thickness from about 3,000 to over 14,000 feet. The sediments consist primarily of alluvium from nearby mountains and sources outside the basin, as well as some volcanic rocks. Through investigation it has been divided into upper, middle, and lower divisions according to their depositional environment and age (Connell and others (1998).

The lower Santa Fe Group was deposited about 30 to 15 million years ago, its thickness ranges from approximately 1,000 to 3,500 feet. It represents time of a shallow basin prior to the extensive uplift of surrounding mountains. The middle Santa Fe Group sediments are about 15 to 5 million years old and range from about 250 to 9,000 feet thick. The time it represents is a period of active tectonism and highest sedimentation. Deposition from about 5 to 1 million years ago, represent the upper Santa Fe Group, which is less than 1,000 feet thick. During this time, the earliest Rio Grande system included two ancestral tributaries, the Rio San Jose and Rio Puerco. Because of high sedimentation during this period the Rio Grande and Rio Puerco began to cut their present valleys, which put an end to the Santa Fe Group sedimentation (Thorn and others (1993).


Cross Section of the Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources-Albuquerque.


Groundwater Flow

The Middle Rio Grande basin contains multiple sources of recharge into the aquifer system. Recharge to the aquifer system starts off as precipitation in the adjacent mountains (Thorn and others, 1993; Anderholm, 2001). Runoff from rainfall or snowmelt percolate through streambeds once they meet the permeable soils on the alluvial fans, although most of the precipitation that falls within the river valley is usually lost to evaporation and transpiration. Layers of clay, silt, or un-fractured volcanic rocks limit the vertical movement of this groundwater to the unconfined layer. Fractures or permeable layers in the sediment supply water from precipitation to bedrock aquifers (Anderholm, 2001). The use of irrigation and septic systems have also been introduced potential sources of recharge into the basin.

The classification of the flow system has been complicated because of drawdown by ground-water pumping, predominantly in the surrounding area of Albuquerque. Most discharge occurs through pumping, evapotranspiration, or flow into drains and sections of the Rio Grande (Kernodle and others 1995). Groundwater withdrawals have lowered the water levels in the unconfined aquifer enough to reverse hydraulic gradients and stimulate recharge from the Rio Grande. Hydraulic properties have been altered according to the direction of groundwater flow and have possibly changed the rates of recharge in certain areas (Bexfield and Anderholm, 2002a).

The aquifer system can be illustrated as horizontally and vertically anisotropic, in which the measurement of hydraulic conductivity for the three axes of the model do not have to be equal. The horizontal hydraulic conductivity in the east-west direction of the aquifer ranges from 0.05 to 45 ft/d. The hydraulic conductivity in the north-south direction of the aquifer ranges from 0.05 to 60 ft/d (McAda and Barroll, 2002). Specific storage is proved to be 2 x 10-6 ft-1 and specific yield is figured to be 0.2. Transmissivities in the region have been estimated through pumping tests at 7400 m2/day (Hawley and Haase, 1992).

Flow Net of Albuquerque-Middle Rio Grande Basin, USGS.


Surface Water Relationship (Rio Grande River)                                 

The key surface drainage for the Middle Rio Grande Basin is the Rio Grande River. The river shown in the first figure extends the entire length of the basin. The rivers headwaters begin at elevations exceeding 13,000 feet found in the San Juan Mountains located in southwestern Colorado (Ellis and others, 1993). Before entering the basin of the modern Rio Grande the river, it is affected by irrigation diversions and reservoirs located on the river and its tributaries. The drainage of when it reaches the Middle Rio Grande Basin confines an area of about 14,900 square miles. Within the basin, man-made structures such as reservoirs alter its configuration and seasonal discharge patterns (Crawford and others, 1993). 

Rio Grande River, US environmental Protection Agency.


Prior to regulation and artificial adjustments, the Rio Grande was probably a perennial and braided river that wandered across the flood plain according to its seasonal discharge of runoff. The regularity of periodic flooding increased as a result of the added sediment associated with land-use activities, which later confined the river with the of  help man-made levees to a single channel. During this time, a newer system of irrigation canals, levees, and interior and riverside drains were constructed. The drains lowered the water table so previously over saturated soil caused by canal leakage and irrigation could be cultivated (Crawford and others, 1993).


Water Resources and Use

The steady increase in ground-water withdrawals within Albuquerque have been estimated from urban, rural, commercial, and industrial uses, in which they have extracted 152,700 acre-feet (Thorn and others, 1993; Bartolino and Cole, 2002). Pumping in and around the city of Albuquerque has consequently provided significant declines in water levels. Predevelopment levels shown east of the Rio Grande have provided the largest and most extensive declines, falling in excess of 120 feet (Bexfield and Anderholm, 2002b). Observations west of the Rio Grande have represented declines as much as 100 feet.

Cochiti Dam at the north end of the basin discharges the Rio Grande for regulatory flood and sediment control. Discharge throughout the irrigation season has been changed opposed to a more natural and seasonal distribution water. The alterations in the discharge provide a greater amount of water for agriculture practices (Wilson, B.C., and Lucero, A.A., 1997).

Las Cruces irrigation near Albuquerque, mgarcia121,


The city is currently using exclusively groundwater for its water supply. Water level declines have proved to be greater than predicted by previous hydrologic investigations that have taken place within the basin(Ortiz and others, 1999). The potential for ground-water contamination in the basin has been a growing issue, particularly concerning the natural occurrences of arsenic, which is of concern to water-management officials.


Groundwater Quality and Contamination

          The quality of Albuquerque’s water was first questioned in 1978 when it was suspected at a private well near a chemical handling facility. Following samples provided certain volatile organic compounds that were also present in neighboring municipal wells. Certain wells consisting of six private, industrial, and municipal supply wells have been impacted by the containments and taken out of operation by the city of Albuquerque (Gallaher and Others, 1987).

Since 1983, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has directed three investigation efforts towards an industrial area of Albuquerque consisting of two in the San Jose sector and a later third in the South Valley area, which have all been Superfund Projects: the South Valley site and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad site. San José has been selected as the state's top Superfund priority because of assorted industries facilitating hazardous chemicals such as benzene, trichloroethylene, and pesticides like DDT (Earp, D., Postlethwait, J., and Witherspoon, J. (1998).

Most of the organic contamination found at the site occurred as a dense non-aqueous phase liquid (DNAPL) with organic compounds that slowly dissolve into the ground water. Industries involved with the area include: BNSF Railroad Company, Chevron, Texaco, and General Electric Corporation. Groundwater as deep as 170 feet below the top of the confining aquifer and also encompassing close to a square mile was affected by the pollutants. Due to pressure by Albuquerque San José Community Awareness Council, General Electric and BNSF agreed to pay for clean-up of the water (Gallaher and Others, 1987).

In 1999, three recovery trenches were installed to collect dense non-aqueous phase liquid (DNAPL) through a gravity feed system. In 2000, five recovery pumps were installed to extract DNAPL from the Shallow and Intermediate Aquifers. Several Cleanup and Removal Actions were completed from 1990 through 2000. Additional investigations determined any other possible sources of contaminants in soils or groundwater near the area of San Jose. The most probable sources of contaminants are narrowed down to facilities handling petroleum or solvents. Now there is little risk associated with residents of Albuquerque drinking private well water (Gallaher and Others, 1987).

Super Chief, Albuquerque: 1943Albuquerque Railroad Yard: 1943 photo: Jack Delano.


A regional water plan was initiated in late 1998 and completed in late 2003 for Albuquerque and surrounding areas. Sanctioned under the State Water Planning Act, the effort brought together volunteers from all sectors of neighboring communities to direct the plan through the Mid-Region Council of Governments. Since the water supply does not recognize jurisdictional boundaries because it is underground, there is more demand than supply. This regional plan helps educate and inform local governments of the larger communities to conserve and protect the limited resource. The regional water plan also addresses issues such as the use of water in agricultural practices and how to preserve traditional values associated agriculture.

The Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners and the Albuquerque City Council ordered a comprehensive Groundwater Protection Policy and Action Plan and a Hazardous Materials and Waste Storage and Sitting Policy, which recognizes the significance of protecting the ground water supply for future use. The County Commission and the Albuquerque City Council adopted the arrangement of GPPAP in 1994. The GPPAP is still active and principally designed to prevent any additional contamination of ground water in the Albuquerque area (Earp, D., Postlethwait, J., and Witherspoon, J. 1998).



The Albuquerque metropolitan area has grown to the largest urban community in New Mexico, resulting in creating growing concerns over the availability of groundwater resources suitable for land development. The United States Geologic Survey found that the most productive zone of the aquifer system was not as far reaching and thinner than previously thought (Bjorklund and Maxwell, 1961; Reeder and others, 1967). Consequently the higher per capita use of water at 250 gallons per person per day; the the water levels has substantially gone down to the extent of 120 feet in some places (Bexfield and Anderholm, 2002b). These circumstances provide subsequent reasons for the city to reassess its upcoming water needs and also to evaluate its potential effects of the use of groundwater for municipal basis in the Middle Rio Grande Basin.



Bartolino, J.R., and Cole, J.C., 2002, Ground-water resources of the Middle Rio Grande Basin,

New Mexico: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1222, p. 132.


Bexfield, L.M., and Anderholm, S.K., 2002a, Spatial patterns and temporal variability in water

quality from City of Albuquerque drinking-water supply wells and piezometer nests, with implications for the groundwater flow system: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 01-4244, p. 101.


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1993, Middle Rio Grande ecosystem—Bosque biological management plan: Albuquerque, Middle Rio Grande Bosque Biological Interagency Team, p. 291.


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Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas: American Water Resources Association, Water Resources Bulletin, v. 29, no. 4, August 1993, p. 617-646.


Earp, D., Postlethwait, J., and Witherspoon, J. (1998) Albuquerque's environmental story.     

Educating For a Sustainable Community. URL:


Gallaher, B.M, McQuillan, D.M. Chavez, L.D., Hull, H.F. and Edson, M. 1987 Ground-Water

Quality and Public Health Abbeqerue, South Valley, New Mexico Health and Environment Department,  p. 240.


McAda, D.P., and Barroll, P., 2002, Simulation of groundwater flow in the Middle Rio Grande

Basin between Cochiti and San Acacia, New Mexico: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 02-4200, p. 81.


Kernodle, J.M., McAda, D.P., and Thorn, C.R., 1995, Simulation of ground-water flow in the

Albuquerque Basin, central New Mexico, 1901-1994, with projections to 2020: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 94-4251, p. 114.


Ortiz, D., Lange, K., and Beal, L., 1999, Water resources data, New Mexico, water year 1998—Volume 1. The Rio Grande Basin, the Mimbres River      Basin, and the Tularosa Valley Basin: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Data Report NM-98-1, 404 p.


Russell, L.R., and Snelson, S., 1990, Structural style and tectonic evolution of the Albuquerque

Basin segment of the Rio Grande Rift, in Pinet, B., and Bois, C., eds., The potential of deep seismic profiling for hydrocarbon exploration: Editions Technip, Paris, French Petroleum Institute Research Conference Proceedings, p. 175-207.


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conditions in the Albuquerque Basin, central New Mexico: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 93-4149, p. 106


Wilson, B.C., and Lucero, A.A., 1997, Water use by categories in New Mexico counties and

river basins, and irrigated acreage in 1995: Sante Fe, New Mexico State Engineer Office Technical Report 49, p. 149.



Average monthly precipitation at the Albuquerque Airport, New Mexico, 1971-2000. Water-

Resources Investigations Report 03-4131, USGS.


Climate Picture of Albuquerque. Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2009.!UserFiles/contentphotos/skyline_scenic/acvb_EC_mtn_yucca. Accessed April 28, 2009.


Albuquerque Railroad Yard: 1943 photo Jack Delano. Accessed April 28, 2009.


Cross Section of Rio Grande Basin. Connell, Sean D. Geology, Groundwater, and Geologic

Hazards in the Albuquerque Basin, New Mexico. New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources-Albuquerque Office.


Las Cruces irrigation near Albuquerque, Las Cruces, NM Picture by

mgarcia121. Accessed April 27, 2009.


Hydrologic Monitoring Flow Net of Albuquerque Basin, United States Geological Survey.

Last modified 13 June, 1996. Accessed April 28, 2009.


Middle Rio GrandeValley Map-Image. University of Colorado at Boulder., Accessed April 27, 2009.



Rio Grande River, US environmental Protection Agency, Biological Indicators of Watershead

Health. Last updated on Thursday, April 9th, 2009. Accessed April 26, 2009.



Created by Graham Markowitz for GO571

May 1, 2008

Emporia State University, Department of Earth Sciences

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