Updating a Method to Estimate Probable High Groundwater Levels in Massachusetts

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Periodic high groundwater levels are a major cause of septic system-failures, wet basements, and other problems for suburban and rural residents in Massachusetts. To address this issue, a method (commonly referred to as the Frimpter method) was developed in early 1980’s to estimate probable high groundwater levels across the state. The USGS New England Water Science Center, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, recently completed an updated analysis of probable high groundwater levels using groundwater level data through water year 2017.

Method for estimating probable high groundwater levels in Massachusetts

Figure 1. Schematic overview of the method for estimating probable high groundwater levels in Massachusetts. Click on figure to enlarge. (Public domain.)

The Frimpter method uses a groundwater measurement from a test site, groundwater measurements from an index well, and a distribution of high groundwater levels from wells in similar geologic and topographic settings (fig. 1). The updated analysis evaluated the potential changes to the method resulting from nearly four decades of additional groundwater-level data and the expansion of the network of wells for monitoring groundwater levels. The differences and potential benefits of daily, as opposed to monthly, measurements in the application of the method were examined because of the increased availability of high-frequency (subdaily) groundwater-level data. The study also considered long-term trends in groundwater levels that may alter the accuracy of the method. Finally, the accuracy of the estimated high groundwater levels was evaluated, and improved implementation guidance was prepared.

For this study, groundwater levels in 153 wells in Massachusetts and surrounding States with records with lengths of 16 to 78 years were analyzed. The highest recorded groundwater levels ranged from 1.2 feet (ft) above land surface (flooded conditions) to 45.8 ft below land surface, with a median of 4.6 ft below land surface. The maximum annual groundwater-level range was 1.4 to 17.9 ft, with a median of 5.5 ft. Wells completed in till generally have larger annual groundwater-level ranges than wells completed in stratified drift.

The within-month variation, maximum annual groundwater-level range, and highest recorded groundwater level were computed using daily mean groundwater-level values from 28 wells with continuous records. The use of daily data resulted in larger maximum annual groundwater-level ranges (0.02 to 2.94 ft larger, with a median of 0.58 ft larger) and shallower highest-recorded groundwater levels (0.0 to 1.60 ft shallower, with a median of 0.18 ft shallower) than computations based on monthly measurements in the same wells.

Statistical tests showed moderate to strong evidence of trends in measurements of both high and low groundwater levels within most of the periods during which water levels were analyzed. High groundwater levels rose beneath the land surface at most sites during four of the six periods used for analysis (1966–2015, 1986–2015, 1991–2010, and 1981–2010). Low groundwater levels also increased at many sites during most of the periods evaluated, but this trend was less widespread than the similar trends in high groundwater levels, and the trend was to deeper low groundwater levels at more sites than the trend to deeper high groundwater levels. There was no clear trend in annual groundwater-level ranges at most sites during the six periods analyzed.

In general, the Frimpter method predicted shallower (higher) high groundwater levels than were observed but correctly classified sites according to their suitabilities for unmounded septic systems. The mean error of the predictions (difference between the estimated and observed groundwater levels) ranged from −3.23 ft to −1.40 ft for various approaches to estimating the groundwater-level range and selecting an index well. The method correctly classified 83 to 86 percent of monitoring-well sites according to their suitability for an unmounded septic system for many approaches to estimating the annual groundwater-level range and selecting an index well. The approach selected for estimating the annual groundwater-level range and selecting an index well will depend upon the importance of an accurate estimate of the high groundwater level as compared to the importance of an estimated high groundwater level that is less likely to be exceeded.

Study publication:

Barclay, J.R., and Mullaney, J.R., 2020, Updating data inputs, assessing trends, and evaluating a method to estimate probable high groundwater levels in selected areas of Massachusetts: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2020–5036, 45 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20205036.

Associated data for this publication:

Barclay, J.R., and Mullaney, J.R., 2020, Data on well characteristics and well-pair characteristics for estimating high groundwater levels in selected areas of Massachusetts: U.S. Geological Survey data release, https://doi.org/10.5066/P9NM2PHP.