The Hueco Bolson: An Aquifer at the Crossroads

Zhuping Sheng1, Robert E. Mace2, and Michael P. Fahy3 [2001]

1. Texas A&M University System, El Paso Research and Extension Center
2. Texas Water Development Board
3. El Paso Water Utilities

[Reposted under fair use for educational purposes only, from  pps. 66-75.]


The Hueco Bolson is a thick pocket of sediments derived from nearby mountains that
extends from New Mexico, through Texas, and into Mexico in the El Paso and Ciudad
Juarez area. Over time, these sediments filled with water and became the Hueco Bolson
aquifer: an oasis of plentiful water in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert. El Paso
and Ciudad Juarez have relied on the Hueco Bolson aquifer as a primary source of
drinking water for several decades (Sayre and Penn, 1945; White and others, 1997).
Ciudad Juarez, several communities in New Mexico, and the Fort Bliss Military
Reservation currently depend on the Hueco Bolson aquifer as their sole source of
drinking water (Sheng and others, 2001). Because of the desert climate and the local
geology, the aquifer is not easily replenished, and recharge is low. Low recharge and high
pumping rates have caused large water-level declines and large decreases in fresh-water
volumes in the aquifer.

The aquifer and the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area are at the crossroads. With current trends,
groundwater models predict that El Paso will pump the last of its fresh water by 2025,
and Ciudad Juarez will pump the last of its fresh water by 2005 (Sheng and others, 2001).
The El Paso Water Utilities/Public Service Board (EPWU) has recognized the nature of
limited groundwater resources in the area and has investigated and invested in several
strategies to increase the longevity and usefulness of the aquifer. The purpose of this
paper is to briefly summarize the hydrogeology of the Hueco Bolson aquifer and discuss
several of the management strategies to protect and responsibly use the aquifer.


The Hueco Bolson aquifer is coincident with the Hueco Bolson, a long, sediment-filled
trough that lies between the Franklin, Organ, and San Andres Mountain ranges and the
Quitman, Malone, Finlay, Hueco, and Sacramento Mountain ranges (fig. 6-1). Hill (1900)
defined the Hueco Bolson as including the Tularosa Basin (as shown in fig. 6-1).

However, Richardson (1909) divided the bolson into two parts: the Tularosa Basin to the
north and the Hueco Bolson to the south. The topographic divide between these two
basins is about 7 mi north of the Texas New Mexico border. However, the Hueco Bolson
and the Tularosa Basin are hydraulically connected to each other (Wilkins, 1986) and
have been combined into the Hueco-Tularosa aquifer (Hibbs and others, 1997).

The Hueco Bolson is about 200 mi long and 25 mi wide. The Hueco Bolson aquifer
consists of unconsolidated to slightly consolidated deposits composed of fine- to
medium-grained sand with interbedded lenses of clay, silt, gravel, and caliche. Sediments
in the bolson are fluvial, evaporitic, alluvial fan, and aeolian in origin and have a
maximum thickness of 9,000 ft (Mattick, 1967; Cliett, 1969; Abeyta and Thomas, 1996).
The bottom part of the Hueco Bolson is primarily clay and silt. Therefore, only the top
several hundred feet produce good-quality water.


The Hueco Bolson aquifer is recharged by mountain-front recharge; seepage from the Rio
Grande, canals, and agricultural drains; and deep-well injection (Knorr and Cliett, 1985;

Land and Armstrong, 1985; White and others, 1997). Mountain-front recharge is the

seepage of surface run-off after rainfalls into the aquifer where the bolson laps up against

bordering mountains. Before the aquifer was heavily pumped, water in the aquifer
naturally discharged to the Rio Grande. After pumping caused water levels to decline, the
Rio Grande began to lose water into the aquifer, so much so that a part of the river
through El Paso-Ciudad Juarez has been lined with concrete to minimize leakage.
Unlined irrigation canals and drains also leak water into the aquifer, although the water is
usually of poor quality. EPWU has taken treated wastewater and injected it up-gradient of
one of El Paso’s well fields to increase recharge to the aquifer.

Meyer (1976) estimated that mountain-front recharge (from the Organ and Franklin
Mountains in New Mexico and Texas and the Sierra de Juarez in Mexico) to the aquifer
in El Paso County is 5,640 acre-ft/yr. White (1987) estimated that about 33,000 acre-ft/yr
of water is recharged into the Rio Grande alluvium overlying the bolson aquifer.
Recharge from the Rio Grande was reduced significantly when the bottom of the Rio
Grande was lined in 1973 and 1998 in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area (Hibbs and others,
1997; Heywood and Yager, in review).

Treated wastewater is injected at the Fred Harvey Wastewater Treatment Plant in El Paso
and provided about 3,800 acre-ft of water per year in 1995 (USEPA, 1995) and about
1,800 acre-ft in 1999 (Sheng and others, 2001).

Well Yields

Well yields in the Texas part of the Hueco Bolson aquifer are as much as 1,800 gpm
(Hibbs and others, 1997). In New Mexico, yields are higher in alluvial fans that flank the
basin (~1,400 gpm) and lower in the interior of the basin (300 to 700 gpm) (Hibbs and
others, 1997). In the well field for Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, yields range between 300
and 1,500 gpm (Hibbs and others, 1997). Hydraulic conductivity in the Hueco Bolson, as
determined with 73 aquifer tests, varies from 6.4 to 98.9 ft/day (Hibbs and others, 1997).


The Hueco Bolson aquifer is pumped at a much greater rate than the aquifer is recharged.
Groundwater withdrawals from the aquifer in Texas amounted to about 69,000 acre-ft in
1999 (Sheng and others, 2001): about nine times greater than the amount of recharge in
El Paso County. Over the past 20 yr, pumping from the Hueco and Mesilla Bolsons in
Texas has ranged from 96,000 to 138,000 acre-ft/yr (Mace, this volume).

Water Quality

Water quality in the Hueco Bolson varies depending on location and depth. Water quality
in the Texas part of the Hueco Bolson tends to be better to the west than to the east,
although there are pockets of good-quality water in the eastern part of the bolson (Gates
and others, 1980). North of the Texas-New Mexico border, water tends to have total
dissolved solids (TDS) greater than 1,000 mg/L except near mountain fronts where there

is active recharge (Hibbs and others, 1997). The upper part of the aquifer tends to be
fresher with TDS ranging between 500 and 1,500 mg/L, with an average of about 640
mg/L (Ashworth and Hopkins, 1995). Water quality has been affected by the large waterlevel
declines in the aquifer, which have induced flow of poor-quality water into areas of
fresh water. Water quality in the shallow part of the aquifer along the Rio Grande in the
alluvium has degraded because of leakage of poor-quality irrigation return-flow into the
aquifer (Sheng and others, 2001). Water quality beneath Ciudad Juarez is generally less
than 1,000 mg/L TDS (Hibbs and others, 1997), however, water-quality deterioration has
been observed in wells along the border and in the downtown area.

Water Levels and Groundwater Flow

Depth to water in the Hueco Bolson aquifer ranges from very shallow to very deep.
Depth to groundwater near the Cities of Tularosa and Alamogordo is between 20 and 150
ft, whereas depth to water below El Paso ranges from 250 to 400 ft in depth, and depth to
water below Ciudad Juarez ranges between 100 and 250 ft (Hibbs and others, 1997).
Depth to water below the Rio Grande is less than 70 ft. Groundwater flows from the
Tularosa Basin southward into the Hueco Bolson and into Texas (Hibbs and others, 1997,
their fig. 3.8). Little drawdown has been recorded in the northern part of the aquifer. The
drawdown in Hueco Bolson along the Texas-New Mexico border has been relatively
small, not exceeding 30 ft (Hibbs and other 1997). In heavily developed parts of the
Hueco Bolson aquifer, drawdowns since predevelopment in 1903 are up to 170 ft. Focal
points of drawdown are beneath the City of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez (Hibbs and others,

The model by Heywood and Yager (in review) suggests that about 6,000 acre-ft/yr of
groundwater flowed in the Hueco Bolson aquifer from New Mexico into Texas before
large-scale pumping by El Paso in the 1960’s. Since then, the amount of flow has
increased to about 18,000 acre-ft/yr. In the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area, groundwater
flows toward cones of depression. Between 1910 and 1960, groundwater flowed from
Mexico into Texas toward pumping centers in El Paso (Sheng and others, 2001). Since
1960, groundwater, generally of poor quality, has flowed from Texas into Mexico (Sheng
and others, 2001).

Groundwater Models

Several groundwater flow models have been constructed for the Hueco Bolson aquifer
system. These models include an early electric-analog model of the El Paso area (Leggat
and Davis, 1966) and three numerical models developed by the U.S. Geological Survey,
including (1) Meyer and Gordon (1973) and Meyer (1975, 1976) (later updated by
Knowles and Alvarez, 1979), (2) Groschen (1994), and (3) an as yet unpublished model
(Heywood and Yager, in review). Mullican and Senger (1990, 1992) developed a model
of the southeastern part of the Hueco Bolson. Mexico has also developed a groundwater
flow model for part of the area. Wilson and others (1986) used a preexisting model to
predict water resources through 2060.

Models by Groschen (1994) and Heywood and Yager (in review) simulate potential
water-level declines, as well as changes in water quality due to pumping. Groschen
(1994) showed that water quality in the bolson is most likely affected by horizontal
movement of saline water in response to pumping.

The integrated flow and water-quality model by Heywood and Yager (in review)
represents the cooperation of EPWU, the USGS, the International Boundary and Water
Commission (IBWC), Fort Bliss Military Reservation, JMAS (Junta Municipal de Agua
y Saneamiento de Ciudad Juarez), and CILA (Comision Internacional de Limites y
Aguas). Binational coordination has included the exchange of aquifer information and
comparison of water-resource management plans. The model is being used to assess (1)
water storage in the aquifer, (2) the optimization of pumping for fresh and brackish water,
(3) the location of new production wells, (4) the control of brackish-water intrusion, (5)
the design of an aquifer storage and recovery program, and (6) the planning of water
resources among Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico (Sheng and others, 2001).

Groundwater Availability

Groundwater availability represents the amount of water that can be used from an aquifer.
Groundwater availability can be defined in many different ways depending on the local
socioeconomic needs (Mace and others, 2001). In the El Paso area, groundwater
availability has been defined using a systematic depletion approach, where the total
amount of recoverable water is considered the amount of water available for use. In
general, groundwater availability is assessed for the fresh-water part of the aquifer.
However, as water resources become scarcer in the state, more and more areas, including
El Paso, are also evaluating the usable amounts of slightly saline water for ongoing or
potential desalination projects.

Fresh Water

The approximate volume of recoverable freshwater in the entire Hueco Bolson aquifer is
about 7.5 million acre-ft, with 3 million acre-ft in Texas, 3.9 million acre-ft in New
Mexico, and 600,000 acre-ft in Mexico (Sheng and others, 2001, on the basis of a review
of USGS publications). The Far West Texas Planning Group estimated that there were
about 3 million acre-ft of fresh water in the Hueco Bolson and 2.5 million acre-ft of
slightly saline water for desalination (FWTPG, 2001). Recoverable fresh water accounts
for economic and geologic constraints and does not represent all of the fresh water in the

Other studies have suggested differing volumes of fresh water. Knowles and Kennedy
(1956) estimated that the Hueco Bolson in Texas had about 7.4 million acre-ft of
recoverable water, with less than 250 mg/L chloride (~750 mg/L TDS). Meyer (1976)
estimated the recoverable amount of fresh water in the Texas part of the Hueco Bolson to
hold 10.64 million acre-ft. White (1987) estimated that the Hueco Bolson aquifer in
Texas holds about 9.95 million acre-ft of recoverable fresh water. The TWDB (1997)

estimated that there was about 9 million acre-feet of fresh water in the Texas part of the
that there was about 9 million acre-feet of fresh water in the Texas part of the Hueco Bolson.

Slightly Saline Water

Slightly saline water may be a large potential water resource in the El Paso area. There is
an estimated 20 million acre-ft of slightly saline water (TDS between 1,000 and 3,000
mg/L) in the Hueco Bolson aquifer in El Paso County (Sheng and others, 2001). Similar
volumes of slightly saline water may also exist in New Mexico and Mexico (Sheng and
others, 2001). Sheng and others (2001) recommended additional studies to quantify a
more exact volume of poor-quality water in the aquifer.

Strategies to Increase Groundwater Availability

Although recent modeling work suggests that the Hueco Bolson in the El Paso area will
run out of fresh water by 2025, it is not a forgone conclusion. For prediction purposes,
the model assumes that current trends and practices will remain the same. However, the
life of the fresh groundwater resource can be extended by implementing strategies to
increase the availability of groundwater.

Increase Surface-Water Use

By increasing the use of surface water, groundwater use can be minimized, thus
extending the useful life of the fresh-water part of the aquifer. In this case, surface water
is relied upon when plentiful, and groundwater is relied upon when surface water is not
plentiful. Regional water providers are pursuing this strategy by the implementation of
the Regional Sustainable Water Project (IBWC and EPWU, 2000). The Far West Texas
Planning Group also identifies the pursuit of additional surface-water supplies as a
recommended water management strategy for the area (FWTPG, 2001). However, the
planning group noted that El Paso cannot rely on the Rio Grande for water during times
of severe drought (FWTPG, 2001).

Hydraulic Control and Desalination

To reduce the degradation of groundwater quality due to laterally flowing poorer quality
water, wells can be installed to hydraulically control the migration of poorer quality water
by capturing the poorer quality water before it mixes with fresher water. The produced
water can then be desalinated. EPWU and the Department of Defense at the Fort Bliss
Military Reservation are investigating this approach in existing wells in the
Airport/Montana well field (Sheng and others, 2001). To maximize the water supply, the
desalinated water (~200 mg/L TDS) can then be blended with slightly saline water
(~1,500 mg/L TDS) to produce a water with a TDS of about 900 mg/L TDS. Hydraulic
control and desalination extend the life of the fresh-water part of the aquifer by protecting
existing fresh-water resources from further intrusions of poor-quality water and
decreasing the reliance on the fresh-water part of the aquifer. Hydraulic control and

desalination are also being considered in other El Paso wellfields (Sheng and others,

Pumping Optimization

Pumping of wells can be optimized to minimize the migration of poor-quality water and
the depth of cones of depression around pumping centers. Pumping of water-supply wells
should be optimized aquiferwide to minimize the effects of pumping on the migration of
poor-quality water into areas of fresh water. An operational priority list for the Hueco
well fields has been developed and used in well-field operation for over a year (Sheng
and others, 2001). Results of the optimization program will be evaluated to further
improve operation of the well fields. Pumping optimization extends the life of the freshwater
resource by minimizing the impacts of poor-quality water intrusions.

Aquifer Storage and Recovery

Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) is when treated surface water is injected into an
aquifer when it is plentiful and demand is low, and then recovered the stored water from
the aquifer when demand is high or during times of drought. ASR extends the life of the
aquifer by maximizing the use of surface water and recharging the aquifer. In addition, it
will also prevent brackish water intrusion if injection wells are located along the
transition zone of marginal quality groundwater.

Blending high-grade water with poor-quality water

Using the best quality water first has often been the preferred method of groundwater
production. However, by blending good quality water with poorer quality water up to the
Safe Drinking Water Act standards for TDS, chloride, and sulfate secondary maximum
contamination levels, water providers can enhance their production capacity. The
blending method extends the life of the aquifer by maximizing the use of the freshwater
resource. When combined with hydraulic control, existing freshwater resources can also
be additionally protected.


The Hueco Bolson aquifer and the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez area are at the crossroads.
Several scientific studies and recent modeling projects suggest that, under current trends,
fresh water from the Hueco Bolson aquifer in Texas will be depleted by 2025. However,
using groundwater more strategically can extend the longevity of fresh-water resources in
the aquifer. EPWU and FWTPG are actively researching and implementing a number of
strategies to do just this, including increased surface-water use, hydraulic control and
desalination, pumping optimization, aquifer storage and recovery, and blending to
increase freshwater supplies. The area will need to continue to follow this path to ensure
that future water needs of El Paso are met.


Authors would like to thank Mr. Edmund G. Archuleta, General Manager of EPWU, and
John Burkstaller, Chief Technical Officer of EPWU, for their valuable discussions with
the authors. Authors also thank Mr. Charles Heywood of USGS, Jeff Devere of Rio
Blanco County Development Department of Colorado, and Mr. Roger Sperka and Mr.
Scott Reinert of EPWU for their assistance. The opinions and results presented are those
of the authors and do not represent those of EPWU.


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