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Hydrologic budget of the Harney Basin groundwater system, southeastern Oregon

April 11, 2022

Groundwater-level declines and limited quantitative knowledge of the groundwater-flow system in the Harney Basin prompted a cooperative study between the U.S. Geological Survey and the Oregon Water Resources Department to evaluate the groundwater-flow system and budget. This report provides a hydrologic budget of the Harney Basin groundwater system that includes separate groundwater budgets for upland and lowland areas to avoid double counting water that recharges in the uplands, discharges to streams and springs in the uplands, flows downstream to the lowlands, and recharges the lowland groundwater system. Lowlands generally represent the conterminous valleys within the center of the basin, including floodplains of the major streams and uplands represent all other areas in the basin.

The upland groundwater budget is minimally affected by groundwater development and generally represents the budget of the natural system. In upland areas during 1982–2016, mean-annual recharge totaled 288,000 acre-feet (acre-ft) and mean-annual discharge totaled 239,000 acre-ft, resulting in a net recharge of 49,000 acre-ft. Upland groundwater recharge occurs as infiltration of precipitation and snowmelt and was estimated using the USGS Soil-Water-Balance model calibrated to estimates of runoff, evapotranspiration (ET), base flow, and snow-water equivalent. Groundwater discharge to streams is the predominant discharge mechanism in upland areas and was estimated as 225,000 acre-feet per year (acre-ft/yr) during 1982–2016 using hydrograph separation and summer low-flow estimates in streamgaged watersheds and a linear relation between estimated streamflow and base flow in ungaged watersheds. The remaining upland discharge occurs through springs (14,000 acre-ft/yr) that either emerge downgradient of locations where groundwater discharge to streams was estimated or are routed to irrigated areas. Spring discharge was estimated as a compilation of current and historical measurements. The net upland recharge, which is 17 percent of total upland recharge, ultimately recharges lowland areas as groundwater flow from uplands to lowlands.

The lowland groundwater budget for the Harney Basin represents a combination of natural conditions and human activity as more than 99 percent of groundwater development has occurred either inside or within 2 miles of the lowland boundary. In lowland areas during 1982–2016, mean annual groundwater recharge totaled 173,000 acre-ft and groundwater discharge totaled 283,000 acre-ft, indicating discharge exceeded recharge by more than 60 percent.

Excluding groundwater pumping, the lowland groundwater budget is more in balance with a mean annual recharge of 165,000 acre-ft and a mean annual discharge of 131,000 acre-ft during 1982–2016. The 23-percent difference between non-pumping recharge and discharge mostly represents the cumulative uncertainty in the estimates of the various groundwater budget components but also likely includes a small reduction in natural groundwater discharge captured by pumping. Lowland groundwater is predominantly recharged by infiltration of surface water (116,000 acre-ft/yr) through streams, floodwater, and irrigation, with a lesser amount as groundwater inflow from uplands and minimal recharge beneath Malheur and Harney Lakes. Recharge from streams and floodwater (natural and irrigation) was estimated using a balance of measured and estimated surface-water inflow to and outflow from lowland areas including streamflow, springflow, and ET where a portion of surface-water inflow to lowland areas is comprised of upland discharge to streams and springs. Groundwater ET (119,000 acre-ft/yr) is the predominant natural discharge mechanism in lowland areas and was estimated as the mean from two remote-sensing based approaches incorporating groundwater ET measurements from other similar basins and 23 years (1987–2015) of Landsat imagery. Discharge of lowland groundwater into Malheur and Harney Lakes is about 700 acre-ft/yr and is represented in groundwater ET estimates. The remaining natural groundwater discharge from lowland areas issues from Sodhouse Spring (8,900 acre-ft/yr) and as groundwater flow to the Malheur River Basin through Virginia Valley (3,100 acre-ft/yr). The relatively large amount of groundwater discharged to springs in Warm Springs Valley (25,000 acre-ft/yr) is accounted for in groundwater ET estimates. Natural groundwater discharge in lowland areas of the Harney Basin has remained relatively constant during the last 80 years based on comparisons with estimates north of Malheur Lake and west of Harney Lake published in the 1930s.

Annual net amount of groundwater pumped (pumpage) from the Harney Basin during 2017–18 averaged 144,000 acre-ft. The net value is the difference between pumpage (about 152,000 acre-ft/yr) and reinfiltration of groundwater pumped for irrigation and non-irrigation purposes (about 8,000 acre-ft/yr). Net pumpage was estimated in concurrent studies that compiled groundwater-use data and coupled reported groundwater pumpage data from wells with remote-sensing-based ET estimates from groundwater-irrigated fields. Total pumpage for irrigation has increased from about 54,000 acre-ft/yr during 1991–92 to 145,000 acre-ft/yr during 2017–18. Presently, pumpage is greatest in the lowland region north of Malheur Lake (81,000 acre-ft/yr), with lesser amounts to the north and northwest of Harney Lake (41,000 acre-ft/yr) and to the south and east of Malheur Lake (22,000 acre-ft/yr).

During this study, mean annual lowland groundwater discharge (including pumpage) exceeded mean annual recharge, indicating that the lowland hydrologic budget is out of balance. Net groundwater pumpage during 2017–18 is similar to groundwater discharge from all other sources in the lowlands and is four times the imbalance between non-pumping lowland recharge and discharge (34,000 acre-ft/yr). Declining groundwater levels at depth across many parts of the Harney Basin lowlands indicate that pumpage is depleting aquifer storage and is likely capturing a small amount of natural groundwater discharge to springs and ET in some lowland areas. If pumping continues, aquifer storage depletion will continue until the capture rate of natural discharge to springs and ET is equal to the pumping rate. If groundwater development occurs in upland areas and reduces either the streamflow or groundwater inflow to lowland areas, the deficit in the lowland water budget will increase.

Publication Year 2022
Title Hydrologic budget of the Harney Basin groundwater system, southeastern Oregon
DOI 10.3133/sir20215128
Authors C. Amanda Garcia, Nicholas T. Corson-Dosch, Jordan P. Beamer, Stephen B. Gingerich, Gerald H. Grondin, Brandon T. Overstreet, Jonathan V. Haynes, Mellony D. Hoskinson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2021-5128
Index ID sir20215128
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Oregon Water Science Center