Abstract

Most of the ground water in the Grand Canyon region circulates to springs in the canyon through the thick, deeply buried, karstified Cambrian-Mississippian carbonate section. These rocks are collectively called the lower Paleozoic carbonates and comprise the Redwall-Muav aquifer where saturated. The morphologies of the caves in the Grand Canyon are primarily a function of whether the carbonates are unconfined or confined, a distinction that has broad significance for ground-water exploration and which appears to be generally transferable to other carbonate regions. Caves in unconfined high-gradient environments tend to be highly localized, partially saturated, simple tubes, whereas those in confined low-gradient settings are saturated 2- or even 3-dimensional mazes. The highly heterogeneous, widely spaced conduits in the unconfined settings make for difficult drilling targets, whereas the more ubiquitously distributed mazes in confined settings are far easier to target. The distinctions between the storage characteristics within the two classes are more important. There is minimal ground-water storage in the unconfined systems because cave passages tend to be more widely spaced and are partially drained. In contrast, there is maximum storage in the saturated mazes in the confined systems. Consequently, system responses to major storm recharge events in the unconfined systems are characterized by flow-through hydraulics. Spring discharge from the unconfined systems tends to be both flashy and highly variable from season to season, but total dissolved solids are small. In contrast, the pulse-through hydraulics in the artesian systems cause fluctuations in spring discharge to be highly moderated and, in the larger basins, remarkably steady. Both total dissolved solids and temperatures in the waters from the confined aquifers tend to be elevated because most of the water is derived from storage. The large artesian systems that drain to the Grand Canyon derive water from areally extensive, deep basins where the water has been geothermally heated somewhat above mean ambient air temperatures. Karst permeability is created by the flow system, so dissolution permeability develops most rapidly in those volumes of carbonate aquifers where flow concentrates. Predicting where the permeability should be best developed in a carbonate section involves determining where flow has been concentrated in the geologic past by examining the geometry and hydraulic boundary conditions of the flow field. Karstification can be expected to maximize in those locations provided enough geologic time has elapsed to allow dissolution to adjust to the imposed boundary conditions. The rate of adjustment in the Grand Canyon region appears to be related to the degree of saturation. The artesian systems are far better adjusted to hydraulic gradients than the unconfined systems, a finding that probably implies that there is greater contact between the solvent and rock in the saturated systems. These findings are not arcane distinctions. Rather, successful exploration for ground water and management of the resource is materially improved by recognition of the differences between the types of karst present. For example, the unsaturated conduit karsts in the uplifts make for highly localized, high risk drilling targets and involve aquifers with very limited storage. The conduits have highly variable flow rates, but they carry good quality water largely derived from seasonal flow-through from the surface areas drained. In contrast, the saturated basin karsts, with more ubiquitous dissolutional permeability enhancement, provide areally extensive low risk drilling targets with large ground-water storage. The ground water in these settings is generally of lesser quality because it is derived mostly from long term storage.

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