Study Explores Groundwater and Geothermal Energy in Drought Areas of the West

A new study now underway by the U.S. Geological Survey is exploring the groundwater resources and geothermal energy potential in drought-stricken areas of eastern Oregon and nearby parts of California, Idaho, and Nevada.

Volcanoes are associated with vast amounts of geothermal energy and lava flows from many of the Pacific Northwest’s most important aquifers—potentially the only reliable source of high-quality water during periods of drought.

“The research encompasses large areas that have been under drought conditions for several years and data acquired by the study will aid water managers in their efforts to meet the needs of water users in these areas,” said Erick Burns, USGS scientist and project chief for this study.

The study assesses the groundwater resources and geothermal energy potential within parts of the Northwest Volcanic Province. This region of the inland Pacific Northwest has been heavily influenced by landscape-shaping volcanic eruptions over the past 17 million years.

“Previous assessments have identified this region as having high potential for geothermal development, but large portions of the region have yet to be characterized in detail,” said Jonathan Glen, USGS Geothermal Project Chief. “The current study seeks to advance the understanding of where geothermal heat may be efficiently utilized.”

Groundwater is integral to geothermal energy production and the study will collect additional information on the groundwater resources in the Northwest Volcanic Aquifer system. Much of the region is semi-arid with few large streams, which leads to considerable dependence on groundwater for irrigation and public water supplies.

Potential impacts from groundwater and geothermal development affect not only water users, but also the groundwater-dependent ecosystems that occur throughout much of the area. The study aims to compile critical information that will aid water managers in balancing the demand and impact from future development.

The first study results, summarizing estimates of groundwater quantity by sub-region, are expected for publication near the end of 2016.

The study is being conducted in cooperation with the Oregon Water Resources Department, the Idaho Department of Water Resources, and the California Department of Water Resources.

To learn more about the study, visit the Joint Groundwater and Energy Study website.