Research at the Bureau of Geology
Since 1927 the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has been pursuing fundamental research on the geologic framework of our state. This work has included geologic mapping and assessments of the state’s natural resources, as well as research on diverse aspects of the state’s geology. Throughout our history we have conducted statewide resource inventories and evaluations of oil & gas, coal, potash, and other minerals. We are also responsible for archiving and providing this information to other researchers, government agencies, industry, educators, and the general public.
In addition to these fundamental programs, which have flourished over the years, much of the research accomplished today at the bureau is through smaller, focused, regional studies. Many are done at the request of (and often with the financial support of) other state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the New Mexico State Land Office, and local city and county governments throughout the state. These studies are generally more detailed, often with more specific goals in mind. But in all cases the ultimate goal is to provide solid, unbiased geologic information and expertise relevant to the state’s societal needs (such as the increasing scarcity and vulnerability of the state’s water resources) or to help boost regional economic development, be it related to agriculture, mining, oil & gas, geothermal resources, or tourism.
As a division of New Mexico Tech, much of our research involves graduate students and is often conducted in collaboration with faculty from other departments or divisions of the university. What follows here is a description of some of our recent or current projects. Many of these are multi-year projects. All of the results of our research are shared with other state agencies and are made available to the public.
Geological Mapping provides the underpinning of most research carried out by our organization. Our goal is to provide state-of-the-art geological maps of sufficient detail to be of benefit for practical applications for the state of New Mexico. These maps can address a wide range specific topics, such as location of geological resources, including mineral and petroleum resources and groundwater, geological hazards, which are all relevant to natural resource use, city planning, and education. Partial funding for this program is provided by the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program (or STATEMAP). We distribute a wide variety of geologic and resource maps in print, as free web downloads, and via our interactive web-based map portal.
New Mexico's Volcanic Hazards
New Mexico is home to many hundreds of volcanoes that erupted during the last several million years. However, the exact timing of these eruptions has proven difficult to determine by many previous studies. An ongoing NSF-funded project, led by NM Bureau of Geology researcher Matthew Zimmerer, examines the timing of eruptions during the last 500,000 years in order to understand the patterns of volcanism in space and time. This information provides the foundation for an assessment of volcanic hazards in New Mexico.
The new geochronology indicates a more active volcanic history than previously recognized and is identifying new patterns of volcanism. The eruption frequency during the last 100,000 years is approximately one eruption per 3,700 years, which is slightly higher than the long-term average eruption frequency of one per 7,800 years during the last 500,000 years. Another exciting discovery is that the locations of volcanic vents within individual volcanic fields are migrating from the west to the east-northeast at a rate of 2-5 cm/year and is possibly related to the southwestern movement of the North America plate over a relatively stable source of magma generation. A component of this study, published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research in January 2016, showed that the youngest eruption at Valles Caldera occurred at about 68,300 years ago, ending a nearly 30-year-quest by scientists to determine the last pulse of activity at the New Mexico’s dormant supervolcano. This work may lead to new initiatives to understand the history and hazards of volcanism throughout the southwestern United States.
Dating the Sands of Time
Rivers, such as New Mexico’s Rio Grande, contain an amazing record of evolving landscapes. Geological activity, such as faulting, can cause the river to shift course, as can volcanic eruptions when lava flows make dams across rivers. Rainfall variations caused by climate change can also impact a river's evolution. Determining whether tectonics or climate are the primary drivers of river changes can be better understood by studying the age of river terraces (sand and gravel deposits) that mark the river's position on the landscape through time. Terraces are notoriously difficult to date because the sediment comes from many different rocks sources, all of different ages. However a new dating method, being developed at the NMBG&MR, uses our state-of-the-art geochronology laboratory, funded by NSF and NM Tech, to determine the age of detrital sanidine (tiny volcanic minerals) from the deposits. The terrace can be no older than the age of the youngest sanidine crystals in the sediment. Also, if lava from a nearby volcano flows over the terrace, this provides another age constraint because the terrace must be older than the lava, which can also be dated in our lab. Thus, the combined methods serve to bracket the age of the river deposit. Our recent work on the Rio Grande and other major rivers (Colorado, Rio Chama, San Juan) show that during the last 5 million years, the paths of rivers, and the landscapes they shape, have been principally influenced by tectonic processes that uplift the land surface, and by numerous volcanic eruptions. As rivers adjust to this tectonic surface uplift or eruption of lavas into their paths, they cuts deep canyons such as the Taos Gorge or carve mesas that are iconic to New Mexico’s Land of Enchantment.
Estimating Groundwater Recharge for the Entire State of New Mexico
In New Mexico, groundwater accounts for approximately 50% of total water use and 75% of public water supplies. Over the last several years, groundwater levels in many areas of the state have been declining due to a combination of drought and groundwater pumping. Groundwater is replenished by a process called recharge, where snowmelt and rain infiltrates through the soil and slowly moves through the subsurface to eventually reach an aquifer. Because groundwater recharge defines a limit for the availability of groundwater, estimating recharge for the state of New Mexico is necessary for effective water resource management. However, quantification of groundwater recharge represents a significant gap in current understanding of the New Mexico water budget.
The New Mexico Statewide Water Assessment (SWA), which is funded by the New Mexico State Legislature through the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI), is a collaborative effort between state and federal agencies, New Mexico universities, and private consultants, to provide new, dynamic, spatially representative assessments of water budgets for the entire state of New Mexico. As part of the SWA, NMBGMR hydrogeologist, Talon Newton has been working with NMT faculty members and graduate students to develop a model that estimates groundwater recharge for the entire state. The EvapoTranspiration and Recharge Model (ETRM) uses readily available spatial datasets that provide information about climate (e.g. precipitation, net solar radiation, and/or temperature), topography, soil characteristics, geology, and vegetation cover to assess what happens to rain and snow that falls in New Mexico. Using estimated values of daily precipitation as the total input of water, the ETRM calculates how much of this water runs off into streams, infiltrates into the subsurface, is stored in the soil, evaporates and is used by vegetation. Any water that is left over is counted as recharge. This series of calculations has been done for everyday over a 14 year simulation period (2000 – 2013) in over 5 million 250m x 250m cells that uniformly cover the state. Results are preliminary as researchers and students are currently working to improve the accuracy of recharge estimates. Possible applications of this model include the improvement of current hydrologic models being used for water resource management, use in state and regional water planning, and forecasting future changes in recharge due to land use change and climate change.
Monitoring the recovery of Santa Fe's Buckman Water Well Field
High-production municipal water well fields can depress water levels, cause land subsidence, and disturb subsurface aquifer temperatures. As an example, the City of Santa Fe’s Buckman well field located along the Rio Grande, was pumped at high rates from 1989 to 2003. This high-rate pumping led to a precipitous drop in water level (>100 m), caused measureable ground subsidence over a 25 km2 area (based on 1995-1997 InSAR [satellite-based] data), and created a land-surface fissure with 20 cm of vertical displacement. Pumping rates were reduced after 2003 and water levels have since risen ~120 m.
Students attending the Summer of Applied Geophysical Experience (SAGE) field school in Santa Fe had a unique opportunity to collect temperature data in monitoring wells in the Buckman well field between 2013 and 2016. Repeat measurements of thermal profiles and discharge temperatures in monitoring and production wells in the Buckman field record the complex interplay of cooling in aquifers during times of high production and warming during recovery. During high production, water levels drop near the wells, which cause cool water to move horizontally toward the wells, thus decreasing the temperature of the aquifer system. When production decreases, water levels near the wells rise, and vertical groundwater flow warms the aquifer.
One of the most significant discoveries to come out of this study was made by former SAGE and current NM Tech hydrology student, Matthew Folsom. Matt has been intrigued with the changes associated with recovery of Buckman since he was a student at SAGE, so he conducted a repeat InSAR analysis using data from 2007-2010 as a project in Ronni Grapenthin’s geodesy class last fall. He documented land surface rebound on the west side of the field caused by the changing water levels. The observed non-uniform patterns of uplift and subsidence across the field reveal buried geologic features (faults and ancient river channels) that interestingly coincide with measured variations in geothermal gradient. The temperature measurements made by the SAGE students have identified a previously unrecognized area with high geothermal gradients (76-79°C/km) in the field that correlates with the area of maximum uplift. Matt is in the process of writing up his findings for the journal Water Resources Research.
Public-private investment in New Mexico’s water future
The hydrogeology studies group (known as the Aquifer Mapping Program), at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, received an important gift in 2016 from the Healy Foundation to benefit the New Mexico’s water and natural resources. The funds will be used to support two new water-focused, multi-year programs for the state.
The first of the two programs is strongly focused on rural communities. Many single-well, community water providers lack robust scientific data on the local hydrogeology and groundwater conditions, that could be used to better understand and inform decisions about their water future. The first program’s goal is to provide communities with reliable groundwater level data to better manage their water resources. Some ideally-constructed wells will be instrumented with real-time water level measurement devices. These water level data will be collected, stored and accessed through the New Mexico Bureau of Geology's data repository, and will be publicly available on our web site.
The second project focuses on the development of digital maps of aquifers. New Mexico is the fourth leading state for dependency of groundwater for drinking water, following Florida, Idaho, and Hawaii - notably wetter regions of the world. A state as arid as New Mexico, with as little as 0.24% of our land surface covered with water, needs (but currently lacks) detailed maps of aquifers and groundwater resources. This project will compile multiple large datasets, including geologic maps, well information from the Office of the State Engineer, and reports from regional studies. Region by region, these aquifer maps will be publicly available and web accessible.
In past years, the Healy Foundation has supported hydrogeologic research in Taos County, Santa Fe County, Union County and in Socorro/Catron Counties. This year’s funding opens the door to new water studies in a continued public-private partnership with the Healy Foundation and the Bureau of Geology's Aquifer Mapping Program.
Southern Taos Valley Hydrogeology
Since 1987 the bureau has been working in southern Taos County on detailed geologic mapping of the northern Rio Grande Valley. In 2011, in response to concerns regarding groundwater availability in the Taos area, the bureau initiated a multi-year hydrogeologic study of the southern Taos Valley, southwest of Taos. The goal was to produce a GIS-based, three-dimensional conceptual model of the groundwater system, which includes information on flow rates and direction, and groundwater chemistry. This will help county officials make more reliable decisions regarding the future of groundwater resources, and the impact of ongoing development on both surface water and groundwater resources. In addition to geologic mapping, the work involves hydrologic inventories of wells and springs, measurement of water levels in existing wells, sampling of water for chemical analysis, and precipitation studies.
This study produced:
OFR-581 — Hydrogeologic investigation of the southern Taos Valley, Taos County, New Mexico, by Johnson, P.S.; Bauer, P.W.; Felix, B., 2016
Springs and Wetlands at La Cienega
The bureau has been involved in a comprehensive study of the geohydrology of the wetlands in the vicinity of La Cienega, south of Santa Fe, since 2011. These springs and wetlands occur where local groundwater flows intersect the surface. They provide an important source of water for domestic and agricultural use as well as wildlife. The broad goals of the study were to understand the groundwater resources that sustain these wetlands. More specific goals addressed with collaborating agencies included developing strategies to restore springs and wetlands that have already been impacted by local urban development, and to assure the future and sustainability of these important resources. The study revealed a complex, 3-dimensional groundwater system. Groundwater flow from the Santa Fe Group regional aquifer sustains these wetlands. These groundwater flows are susceptible to increased groundwater withdrawals and to seasonal fluctuations, and a majority of the wells in the study have shown a persistent decline in water levels in the last decade. This study has redefined the shallow aquifer in the Santa Fe region, and has much broader implications for that part of the state.
This study produced:
Bulletin-161 — Geology and Hydrology of Groundwater-Fed Springs and Wetlands at La Cienega, Santa Fe County, New Mexico, by Peggy S. Johnson, Daniel J. Koning, Stacy S. Timmons, and Brigitte Felix, 2016, which won the AASG/GSA John C. Frye Memorial Environmental Geology Award for 2016.
Oil & Gas Resource Assessments
The bureau has been involved for many years in studying the geologic framework and petroleum geology of the Mancos Shale, in the San Juan Basin of northwest New Mexico. Development of resources within the Mancos Shale are likely to constitute a large portion of future oil and natural gas production in the state. We have also been developing a summary of the state’s unconventional shale oil and shale gas resources, primarily from formations within the Permian Basin, the San Juan Basin, and the Raton Basin. We have conducted detailed studies of the Woodford and Barnett Shales in the Permian Basin, and the Pierre and Niobrara Shales in the Raton Basin. These unconventional resources are likely to fill the gap created down the line by the decline of the state’s conventional oil and gas resources.
Petroleum geology studies at the bureau of the Tucumcari Basin over a twenty-year period have resulted in extensive leasing and exploratory drilling in the basin, which in turn has resulted in substantial gas discoveries. Exploratory drilling in the Tucumcari Basin is ongoing.
We have also been involved in evaluation of the state’s helium resources, as demand for increasingly scarce domestic sources of this indispensable gas has increased. Finally, in conjunction with the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, we recently submitted a proposal to the U.S. Geological Survey to investigate induced seismicity associated with the disposal of produced water in the vicinity of the Dagger Draw oil field in Eddy County.
San Juan Basin
At the end of 2012 New Mexico Tech embarked on a project in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico. This project is a joint effort of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center (PRRC), the Department of Petroleum Engineering, and the Bureau of Geology. Project goals include a more detailed characterization of existing Mancos Shale oil and gas reserves, as well as an evaluation of water resources available for the future development of these reserves. The bureau’s work will involve making preliminary estimates (using GIS data) of the total volume of material (rock, water, oil, and gas) in each of eleven major aquifers in the San Juan Basin. We will use petroleum reserve information to determine how much of the fluid might be petroleum. We will then use water chemistry data to estimate how much of the water is potable and how much is saline.
This study produced:
OFR-566 Hydrologic assessment of oil and gas resource development of the Mancos Shale in the San Juan Basin, New Mexico, Kelley, Shari; Engler, Thomas; Cather, Martha; Pokorny, Cathryn; Yang, Cheng-Heng; Mamer, Ethan; Hoffman, Gretchen; Wilch, Joe; Johnson, Peggy; Zeigler, Kate, 2014
OFR-567 Reasonable foreseeable development (RFD) for northern New Mexico, Engler, Thomas W.; Kelley, Shari; Cather, Martha, 2015
New Mexico currently utilizes low and intermediate temperature geothermal resources for aquaculture, greenhouses, recreation, district heating, and space heating. In recent years there has been renewed interest in exploring and developing these geothermal resources, and in determining the sustainability of existing resources statewide.
With support from the Department of Energy, and in cooperation with bureau staff, the Jemez Pueblo is drilling an exploratory geothermal well in the vicinity of Jemez Springs. Drilling is expected to begin in September of this year. Bureau geologists will be responsible for logging and interpreting data from the well, and for helping to evaluate the pueblo’s geothermal resources.
In 2012 New Mexico Tech was approached by the city of Truth or Consequences to help them understand the complexity of their geothermal resources. Increased drilling in the vicinity of T or C has been seen as a potential threat to existing warm springs and established wells, upon which the city relies heavily for its economic health. No in-depth study of these resources had been undertaken since the 1970s. The goal of the study has been to develop an understanding of the hydrology of both the shallow and deep regional aquifers, with an eye toward the sustainability of these resources. The work has involved measuring temperatures and water levels in local wells, evaluating water chemistry and water residence time, and developing hydrogeologic models.
We continue to work toward the development of a National Geothermal Data System, working with other states and federal agencies to create a publically available, comprehensive online resource. Well data from the vast archives of the bureau are being digitized and incorporated into this database. The applications of these data—which include geologic formation tops, reservoir pressures, and reservoir porosity and permeability—extend far beyond an understanding of geothermal resources, and are already being used in other projects where a detailed understanding of the subsurface is required.
Bureau staff have also been involved in a study of the age and duration of geothermal systems in the southern Rio Grande Rift. The investigation involves a study of manganese ore deposits present along the rift. The presence of these deposits, which appear to be related to geothermal activity in the Rio Grande Rift, could be a guide to previously unknown geothermal systems. It may also help us to understand the longevity of existing geothermal systems.
For 35 years the bureau has worked cooperatively with the U.S. Geological Survey to contribute to the National Coal Resource Data System (NCRDS). The goal has been to get stratigraphic and coal quality data for all of the coal-bearing regions of New Mexico into a national database. Much of this information has been released through bureau publications, including our coal resource maps. Between 1988 and 2005, detailed coal availability studies were conducted in the San Juan Basin, the Raton Basin, and in the Standing Rock area northwest of Grants. Recently our work has expanded to include geodatabases for coal outcrops in New Mexico, which will allow us to produce digital coal outcrop maps for the state, including attributes regarding thickness and coal quality. Our current project for the NCRDS is focused on verifying and entering existing data from our Coal Data Library into this database.
Apache Mesa Rare Earth Elements Deposits, Jicarilla Apache Reservation, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico
The Point Lookout Sandstone on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in Rio Arriba County contains geological layers called “beach placer deposits”. Beach-placer sandstone deposits are accumulations of dense minerals that form on beaches, or in shallow ocean water. They form by mechanical settling of heavy minerals by the action of waves, currents, and winds. The Apache Mesa deposit formed approximately 145 million years ago when seas covered New Mexico. Today, modern examples are found along the Atlantic Coast in the United States, southeastern Australia, and Andhra Pradesh, India, where they are mined for titanium (an ingredient in paint, tooth paste and other products and used as a metal), zircon (used in ceramics), and locally, monazite (a Ce-bearing rare earth elements (REE) mineral). Other potential commodities that may be found in these deposits include niobium, chromium, thorium, and rare earth elements (REE which are important commodities required to manufacture green technologies, like wind turbines and hybrid/electric cars and are essential in most of our electronic devices, like cell phones and laptop computers.
The Jicarilla Apache Tribe initiated a drilling program, led by Dr. Virginia McLemore, of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, to evaluate the geochemistry and economic potential of these deposits. The Apache Mesa beach-placer sandstone deposits are similar in origin, texture, mineralogy, and chemical composition to other, similar age, beach-placer sandstone deposits elsewhere in northwestern New Mexico and to modern deposits elsewhere in the world. Although we found the Apache Mesa sandstone deposit on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation to be too small and low grade to be economic in today’s market, our understanding of the geology may be useful in the future. The project also provided an excellent training ground for an NM Tech student to learn about drilling and how to evaluate economic potential for NM ore deposits.
Open-file Report-587 presents the results of this work.
AML Project: Inventory and Characterization of Inactive/abandoned mine (AML) features in New Mexico
The NMBGMR has been examining the environmental effects of mine waste rock piles throughout New Mexico since the early 1990s. There are tens of thousands of inactive or abandoned mine features in 273 mining districts in New Mexico (including coal, uranium, metals, and industrial minerals districts), however many of them have not been inventoried or prioritized for reclamation. The New Mexico Abandoned Mine Lands Bureau of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department estimates that there are more than 15,000 abandoned mine features in the state. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management recently estimated that more than 10,000 mine features are on BLM lands in New Mexico and only 705 sites have been reclaimed. The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources has collected published and unpublished data on the districts, mines, deposits, occurrences, and mills since it was created in 1927 and is slowly converting historical data into a relational database, the New Mexico Mines Database. More than 8,000 mines are recorded in the New Mexico Mines Database and more than 7,000 are inactive or abandoned. These mines often include two or more actual mine features.
Most of these mine features do not pose any physical or environmental hazard and many more, pose only physical hazards, which are easy but costly to remediate. However, a complete inventory of these features is needed. Some of these inactive or abandoned mine features can pose serious health, safety and/or environmental hazards, such as open shafts and adits (some concealed by deterioration or vegetative growth), tunnels that contain deadly gases, highwalls, wild animals, radon and metal-laden waters. Some sites have the potential to contaminate surface water, groundwater and air quality. Heavy metals in mine waste or tailings and acid mine drainage can potentially impact water quality and human health.
The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources in cooperation with the Mineral Engineering Department at New Mexico Tech and the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program at the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division (NMMMD) is conducting research on inactive/ abandoned mine features in New Mexico. The objective of our research is to develop a better procedure to inventory and characterize inactive or abandoned mine features in New Mexico. The project will inventory, characterize, and prioritize for reclamation the mine features in three mining districts in New Mexico: the Jicarilla Mountains district in Lincoln County, and the North Magdalena and Rosedale districts in Socorro County for the New Mexico Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Program. Principal investigators are Drs. Mojtabai, McLemore, and Walder of NM Tech. Two graduate students and three undergraduate students are involved with the project. The project involves field visits to the sites for inventorying, sample collecting, characterization, and evaluation of each mine feature and prioritization for reclamation, including hazard ranking.
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe but is rare on Earth. Helium has unique physical and chemical properties that render it indispensable to our modern technological society – it is requisite for the operation of MRI instruments and in the manufacture of computer chips and fiber optic cables. However, helium gas deposits are rare, and helium is typically a trace component of natural gases being emitted at the Earth’s surface. As established supplies have become stressed, the price of helium gas has increases from $18 per thousand ft3 to more than $200 per thousand ft3. Helium has been mined in New Mexico, and the location of helium resources has been mapped by Ron Broadhead, our principal senior petroleum geologist at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources (see map). He is engaged in active research to better understanding the geological processes that can lead to helium accumulation in the subsurface, which may help find additional helium deposits in New Mexico. This is accomplished by mapping the helium content of gases by the layers, or strata, of the rock in which gases have been sampled and analyzed. Then, correlations are examined between the variations in the geologic setting of the gas reservoirs, and the helium content of the gases, which can be used to better understand why high helium gases are found where they are.
Enhanced Potash Recovery Techniques
In cooperation with several partners in industry, a team at the bureau has developed and introduced new reagent suites and process modifications which have dramatically increased the efficiency of potash recovery from existing reserves. These new techniques have been adopted by plants within the state and will result in increased recoveries, reduced energy and reagent costs, and more effective utilization of the state’s potash resources. These resources, which are concentrated in the southeast corner of the state, are used primarily in the manufacture of agricultural fertilizer and as raw material in the chemical industry.
OTHER RESEARCH PROGRAMS & PROJECTS
- Environmental Geology
- Mine Site Characterization
- Natural Resources
- Mineral Resources
- Metallic minerals
- Coal Program
- Industrial minerals
- Acid Mine drainage
- Regional Geology
- NM STATEMAP Geologic Mapping Program
- Precambrian Geology