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Groundwater-flow model of the Treasure Valley, southwestern Idaho, 1986–2015

September 28, 2023

Most of the population of the Treasure Valley and the surrounding area of southwestern Idaho and easternmost Oregon depends on groundwater for domestic supply, either from domestic or municipal-supply wells. Current and projected rapid population growth in the area has caused concern about the long-term sustainability of the groundwater resource. In 2016, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Idaho Water Resource Board and the Idaho Department of Water Resources, began a project to construct a numerical groundwater-flow model of the westernmost portion of the western Snake River Plain aquifer system, called the Treasure Valley.

The development of the model was guided by several objectives, including:

    1. to improve the understanding of groundwater and surface water interactions;
    2. to facilitate conjunctive water management;
    3. to provide a tool for water resources planning; and
    4. to provide a tool for water allocation.

The model was constructed with a spatial scale and level of detail that aimed to meet these objectives while balancing the sometimes-competing goals of fast runtimes, numerical stability, usability, and parsimony.

The Treasure Valley Groundwater Flow Model (TVGWFM) is a three-dimensional finite-difference numerical model constructed using MODFLOW 6 (Langevin and others, 2017, Documentation for the MODFLOW 6 Groundwater Flow Model: U.S. Geological Survey Techniques and Methods, book 6, chap. A55, 197 p., The model covers the westernmost portion of the western Snake River Plain and is discretized into a regular grid of 64 by 65 cells with a side length of 1 mile and 6 layers of varying depth and active area. A historical model period was developed consisting of 360 month-long stress periods for 1986–2015. The model builds upon previous modeling efforts by adding a transient period, incorporating new head and discharge observations to constrain parameters, incorporating information from the hydrogeologic framework model (HFM) of Bartolino (2019, Hydrogeologic framework of the Treasure Valley and surrounding area, Idaho and Oregon: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2019–5138, and incorporating refined estimates of evapotranspiration and irrigation classification of lands in the study area.

The TVGWFM includes all significant components of recharge to and discharge from the aquifer. Inflows include canal seepage, irrigation and precipitation recharge, mountain-front recharge, rivers and stream seepage, and seepage from Lake Lowell. Outflows include discharge to agricultural drainage ditches, discharge to rivers and streams, pumping, and discharge to Lake Lowell. Each recharge or discharge component is represented separately using individual MODFLOW 6 packages.

Parameter values were derived with a combination of trial-and-error steps and automated parameter estimation using PEST software (Doherty, J.E., 2005, PEST, model-independent parameter estimation–User manual: Watermark Numerical Computing, Parameter estimates were constrained with several types of observation data, including water levels, water level changes, vertical water level differences, drain discharges, change in drain discharges, river seepage, seepage from Lake Lowell, and change in seepage from Lake Lowell. Material properties from the hydrogeologic framework were also used to assign the minimum and maximum values of some parameters.

A final parameter realization was reached that minimized residuals between the observed and modelled values for the various observation groups. Mean residuals for the observation groups were 15.4 feet (ft) for water levels, 0.2 ft for water level changes, 19.4 ft for vertical water level differences, −3.9 cubic feet per second (ft3/s) for drain discharges, 0.0 ft3/s for changes in drain discharge, 45.0 ft3/s for river seepage, −40.1 ft3/s for Lake Lowell seepage, and 126.3 ft3/s for changes in Lake Lowell seepage. The quality of the model’s fit to observations varied spatially, with notable areas of under- or over-simulation of water levels present to the northwest and southwest of Lake Lowell, in the foothills along the eastern model boundary, and near the City of Eagle. Trends were observed in the residuals of many of the observation groups, indicating that the model is missing or not fully reproducing some phenomena that are observed in the system.

The TVGWFM can be used as a tool for water resource planning, for understanding the interactions of groundwater and surface water at a basin scale, and for facilitating conjunctive management, but may lack the precision needed for water rights administration at a local scale. Additional sources of uncertainty or limitations of the model are noted. The quantity and spatial distribution of canal seepage and infiltration of irrigation water recharge, the largest sources of recharge to the system, are unknown and approximated indirectly. There is poor understanding of how canal seepage and incidental recharge change as land is converted from agricultural (irrigated) to suburban (semi-irrigated). These uncertainties will affect any scenarios that investigate changes to land use or irrigation practices. Finally, the model has relatively high water-level residuals around and to the southwest of Lake Lowell and should not be used to estimate water level effects in that region.

The model was built with multiple, broadly expressed objectives and did not optimize performance for specific uses. However, the model and the tools included in an associated data release provide ample flexibility to improve the model for future uses. Adjustments and improvements could be made by refining the model in an area of interest, collecting additional calibration data, applying more rigorous boundary conditions, or re-estimating model parameters to optimize model performance for a specific model forecast.

Publication Year 2023
Title Groundwater-flow model of the Treasure Valley, southwestern Idaho, 1986–2015
DOI 10.3133/sir20235096
Authors Stephen A. Hundt, James R. Bartolino
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2023-5096
Index ID sir20235096
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Idaho Water Science Center