Application of a Groundwater Classification System and GIS Mapping System for the Lower Ruby Valley Watershed, Southwest Montana


Classification of groundwater conditions at the watershed scale synthesizes landscape hydrology, provides a mapped summary of groundwater resources, and supports water management decisions. The application of a recently developed watershed-scale groundwater classification methodology is applied and evaluated in the 100,000 hectare lower Ruby Valley watershed of southwestern Montana. The geologic setting, groundwater flow direction, aquifer productivity, water quality, anthropogenic impact to water levels, depth to groundwater, and the degree of connection between groundwater and surface water are key components of the classification scheme. This work describes the hydrogeology of the lower Ruby Valley watershed and illustrates how the classification system is applied to assemble, analyze, and summarize groundwater data. The classification process provides information in summary tables and maps of seamless digital overlays prepared using geographical information system (GIS) software. Groundwater conditions in the watershed are classified as low production bedrock aquifers in the mountainous uplands that recharge the moderate productivity basin-fill sediments. Groundwater levels approach the surface near the Ruby River resulting in sufficient groundwater discharge to maintain stream flow during dry, late summer conditions. The resulting classification data sets provide watershed managers with a standardized organizational tool that represents groundwater conditions at the watershed scale.

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Payne, S. , Magruder, I. and Woessner, W. (2013) Application of a Groundwater Classification System and GIS Mapping System for the Lower Ruby Valley Watershed, Southwest Montana. Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 5, 775-791. doi: 10.4236/jwarp.2013.58079.

1. Introduction

Evaluating how to distribute limited water resources as the demand to support domestic, municipal, energy, and agricultural uses increases requires the development of databases and watershed scale management tools [1-10]. Often basin scale water management emphasizes surface water resources as numerous characterization and classification schemes are readily available to classify these systems [11,12]. It is recognized that a groundwater classification tool that can produce practical summaries of basin scale groundwater systems is needed [6,13]. A classification tool that captures key datasets and improves technical communication between citizens, scientists, and land use planners is illustrated in this work [14, 15].

The classification methodology is applied to an intermontane watershed and groundwater system in southwestern Montana. The methodology maps the geological framework, aquifer productivity, groundwater quality, depth to groundwater, and the relative degree of groundwater/surface water exchange (Figure 1, Tables 1 and 2). Application of the classification process provides a graphical and descriptive summary of groundwater conditions in the lower Ruby Valley watershed (Figure 2) using classification criteria developed by Payne and Woessner [14,15]. The methodology applies standardized nomenclature and mapping techniques that supplement but do not replace the text, figures, maps, and tables commonly included in standard hydrogeological reports [16-19]. While site specific hydrogeological reports are published in a wide range of formats, this classification method promotes standardization of watershed scale

Figure 1. The basic components and steps proposed to classify basin groundwater systems and a diagrammatic explanation of groundwater/surface water ecotones in the mountain and plains landscapes (adapted from Gibert [20]).

information and is intended to provide interested citizens, natural resource planners and managers, and groundwater professionals access to simplified, standardized, and clearly presented summaries of groundwater information. Its application results in geographic information system (GIS) layers that can be viewed and analyzed with other overlays. This paper summarizes the hydrogeology of the lower Ruby watershed, presents an overview of the Payne and Woessner (2010) aquifer classification system, and presents results of application of the classification methodology to the lower Ruby Valley.

2. Study Area

The lower Ruby Valley Watershed of southwestern Montana is approximately 100,000 hectares (Figure 2). The regional geologic setting is the northeastern edge of the basin and range geologic province [21]. The basin fill sediments are composed of fluvial deposits of the Ruby River, and mountain derived alluvial fan and debris flow sediments including some deposits of volcanic origin [22]. The combined thickness of deposits is reported to range from 500 to 600 m [16]. The vertical relief of bedrock in the Tobacco Root, Greenhorn, and Ruby Mountains is typically over 1500 m higher than the valley floor and bound the north, east, and south sides of the valley, respectively. Climate in the valley bottom is semi-arid and mean annual precipitation is 25 - 30 cm; uplands and mountainous areas receive up to 130 cm per year [23]. The valley has a mean annual temperature of 6.5˚C [24].

Land use is dominated by agriculture that includes the production of cattle, grass hay, alfalfa, and some isolated grain crops. The majority of agriculture production relies on seasonal irrigation with water derived from snow melt dominated mountain tributaries, the main stem of the Ruby River (mean annual flow 5 m3/second at USGS station number 06019500, 1938-2008), and stored water from the upstream Ruby Reservoir.

The groundwater system includes bedrock, sediments associated with alluvial fans and Tertiary benches, and fluvial deposits [16,22]. The surrounding bedrock forms a low yield aquifer system and serves as an up gradient recharge source for the basin fill sediments [25]. However, irrigation water loss provides the majority of recharge to the tertiary and alluvial groundwater system [26]. Groundwater is withdrawn from valley aquifers and is the sole source of domestic and municipal water supplies.

The Ruby Valley Conservation District (RVCD) and the Ruby Watershed Council (RWC) recognized the importance of characterizing and understanding groundwater-surface water relationships, and developed a long term watershed scale water management plan that main

Table 1. Summary of aquifer classification codes and descriptions. Numeric classes, special conditions, and narrative descriptions are describedin Payne [14] and available at

tains water supply for current agriculture and land use, and protects and maintains the current quality and quantity of the groundwater and surface water resources. In 2004, the Lower Ruby Valley Groundwater Management Plan (LRVGMP) was prepared that included an initial attempt at classifying surface water and groundwater resources at the watershed scale [16]. That work concluded that the timing and quantity of groundwater supporting Ruby River flows required further analyses and refinement.

In 2005, the Ruby Groundwater/Surface Water Interaction Modeling Project was initiated. Modeling primarily relied upon the previous water resource data collected under the LRVGMP [26]. Field data and modeling analyses were used to refine the basin water balance and identify key processes driving exchange of groundwater with surface water. Model predictions were used to evaluate potential future scenarios in which residential development

Table 2. A three tier assessment hierarchy for aquifer classification.

Figure 2. Location map for the lower Ruby Valley study area.

and changes in agricultural water use affect the hydrologic system.

3. Methods

3.1. Watershed Characterization

Table 3 summarizes the datasets compiled using standard hydrological and hydrogeologic methodologies [16] except in areas with sparse groundwater data where depth to groundwater was inferred from vegetation types [27]. Figures 3-9 show selected project watershed characterization data.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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