Journal of Cave and Karst Studies - ISSN 1090-6924
Volume 61 Number 2: 59-67 - August 1999

A publication of the National Speleological Society

Hydrogeology of Kartchner Caverns State Park, Arizona
Charles G. Graf


Three distinct hydrogeologic systems occur within Kartchner Caverns State Park, Arizona, each in fault contact with the other two. The southeastern corner and eastern edge of the park is part of the large graben that formed the San Pedro Valley during Miocene Basin and Range faulting. A thick alluvial sequence fills this graben and contains a regional aquifer covering 1000 km². One well in the park penetrates this aquifer. The groundwater level measured in this well was 226 m below land surface (1167 m msl), which is 233 m lower than the lowest measured point inside of Kartchner Caverns (1400 m msl).

A pediment occupies a small part of the southwestern corner of the park. Structurally, this feature is part of the Whetstone Mountains horst rising above the park to the west. The pediment consists of a bedrock surface of Precambrian Pinal Schist overlain by a few tens of meters of “granite wash” sediments. Groundwater occurs at depths of 4-18 m below land surface in wells tapping the granite wash sediments. Data from these wells indicate that the zones of saturation within the granite wash sediments are probably of limited lateral extent and yield little water to wells. At the boundary between the pediment and the carbonate ridge containing Kartchner Caverns, the water table in the granite wash aquifer is 20 m higher than the bottom of the nearest known cave passage, located about 200 m to the east.

The arid carbonate hills occupying the northwestern part of the park are the erosional remnants of a fault block (the Kartchner Block) that was displaced downward with respect to the Whetstone Mountains horst to the west. Kartchner Caverns is wholly contained in a ridge of highly faulted Mississippian Escabrosa Limestone and cuts conspicuously across Escabrosa beds dipping 10-40° to the southwest and west. Meteoric water enters the Kartchner Block and Kartchner Caverns from infiltration of runoff in washes that border the block and from overhead infiltration of precipitation. A small amount of groundwater also may flow into the Kartchner Block from the schist pediment to the south. Response in the cave to these fluxes is slow. As calculated from past records, the probability of flooding in the cave in any one year is about 57%.

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