Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Assessing potential effects of changes in water use in the middle Carson River Basin with a numerical groundwater-flow model, Eagle, Dayton, and Churchill Valleys, west-central Nevada

May 15, 2023

During the economic boom of the mid part of the first decade of the 2000s in northwestern Nevada, municipal and housing growth increased use of the water resources of this semi-arid region. In 2008, when the economy slowed, new housing development stopped, and immediate pressure on groundwater resources abated. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation, began a hydrogeologic study of the middle Carson River Basin. The first half of the study reviewed and synthesized previous geologic studies and contributed new datasets that served as a foundation for a three-dimensional, transient numerical model of groundwater and surface-water flow for the middle Carson River Basin extending from Eagle Valley to Churchill Valley. The model can be used to evaluate the effects of proposed alternative management strategies on groundwater sustainability, flows in the Carson River, and routine operation of Lahontan Reservoir and can also provide a basis for basin-wide investigations seeking to quantitatively evaluate the effects of climate change or yet-to-be-determined alternative management strategies.

The middle Carson model was constructed using the U.S. Geological Survey groundwater modeling software MODFLOW-NWT. MODFLOW is widely used groundwater modeling software and is well-suited for evaluating groundwater and surface-water interactions. The model uses 550-feet square grid cells that align with the previously published model for Carson Valley (adjacent upstream valley). Six grid layers with more finely resolved vertical resolution near the perimeter of the active model domain and near surface-water features, compared to other areas of the active model domain, hone the simulated groundwater and surface-water exchanges. In addition to simulating groundwater and surface-water interaction, crop and phreatophyte evapotranspiration, lake evaporation, mountain-front recharge, recharge from irrigation return flows, and groundwater pumping are also simulated. Surface-water flow entering the model domain, including the Carson River, tributary inflow from perennial streams in Eagle Valley, and trans-basin imports through the Truckee Canal (surface water diverted from the Truckee River) are specified according to U.S. Geological Survey streamgage records. Groundwater pumpage and surface-water diversions to 10 agricultural ditches and the managed release from Lahontan Reservoir, at the end of the middle Carson River Basin, are specified according to water-manager records.

The model simulation period extended from 2000 through 2010 (January 1, 2000, to December 31, 2010) using 574 weekly stress periods, with a single steady-state stress period at the beginning of the simulation that establishes initial conditions by approximating average conditions during the transient simulation period. All available observations for this period were used during the model calibration process, performed using automated parameter-estimation software. Calibration targets included observations of groundwater elevations in wells, streamflow, differences in observed streamflow between successive streamgages and actual evapotranspiration from irrigated lands. Among all 5,296 simulated and observed groundwater level pairs, the mean error was 1.42 feet; the mean absolute error, 7.71 feet; and the percent bias was −0.1 percent.

Three alternative management scenarios, run using the entire period of analysis (2000–10), were simulated to improve understanding of the potential effects of (1) loss of irrigated agricultural lands following conversion of water-rights to municipal groundwater rights; (2) reclaiming treated wastewater with induction wells; and (3) exercising permitted but under-utilized groundwater rights. Scenarios 2 and 3 were further explored using two and four subscenarios, respectively. Simulated scenario results ranged from having little effect on the groundwater system relative to a baseline simulation to having spatially extensive and large groundwater-level declines (10 to 20 feet) compared to the baseline simulation. None of the simulated scenarios increased delivery of river flows to Lahontan Reservoir. On the contrary, one of the subscenarios under alternative management scenario 3 led to surface-water delivery shortfalls of more than 10,000 acre-feet per year.

Future model improvements may include an extension of the model simulation period backward and forward in time and directly linking it to the upstream Carson Valley groundwater model. Furthermore, converting this MODFLOW model to a GSFLOW model, which fully integrates groundwater and surface-water flows including precipitation runoff and infiltration, may provide an improved tool for comprehensive management of water-resources in the middle Carson River Basin.

Publication Year 2023
Title Assessing potential effects of changes in water use in the middle Carson River Basin with a numerical groundwater-flow model, Eagle, Dayton, and Churchill Valleys, west-central Nevada
DOI 10.3133/sir20235008
Authors Eric D. Morway, Susan G. Buto, Richard G. Niswonger, Justin L. Huntington
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2023-5008
Index ID sir20235008
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nevada Water Science Center