Abstract

The Snake River Plain aquifer owes its existence and abundance to a unique sequence of tectonic, volcanic, and sedimentologic processes associated with the migration of the North American tectonic plate southwestward across the Yellowstone hotspot, or mantle plume. The basalt lava flows that host the aquifer and comprise the overlying vadose zone are very porous and permeable due to emplacement processes and fracturing during cooling. Rubble zones between lava flows and cooling fractures allow very rapid flow of water in the saturated zone, rapid infiltration of water and contaminants, and deep penetration of air into the vadose zone. Alluvial, eolian, and lacustrine sediments interbedded within the basalt sequence are generally fine-grained, commonly serving as aquitards below the water table, and affecting infiltration and contaminant transport in the vadose zone. The subsiding eastern Snake River Plain (ESRP) and the high elevations of the surrounding recharge areas comprise a large drainage basin that receives enormous amounts of precipitation and feeds high-quality groundwater into the aquifer. Northeast–southwest directed extension of the ESRP produces significant anisotropy to the hydraulic conductivity of the rocks. High heat flow and upwelling of geothermal fluids from the crust beneath the aquifer affect geothermal gradients, aquifer temperatures, and solute chemistry.

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