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Groundwater-level change and evaluation of simulated water levels for irrigated areas in Lahontan Valley, Churchill County, west-central Nevada, 1992 to 2012

September 14, 2016

The acquisition and transfer of water rights to wetland areas of Lahontan Valley, Nevada, has caused concern over the potential effects on shallow aquifer water levels. In 1992, water levels in Lahontan Valley were measured to construct a water-table map of the shallow aquifer prior to the effects of water-right transfers mandated by the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Settlement Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-618, 104 Stat. 3289). From 1992 to 2012, approximately 11,810 water-righted acres, or 34,356 acre-feet of water, were acquired and transferred to wetland areas of Lahontan Valley. This report documents changes in water levels measured during the period of water-right transfers and presents an evaluation of five groundwater-flow model scenarios that simulated water-level changes in Lahontan Valley in response to water-right transfers and a reduction in irrigation season length by 50 percent.

Water levels measured in 98 wells from 2012 to 2013 were used to construct a water-table map. Water levels in 73 of the 98 wells were compared with water levels measured in 1992 and used to construct a water-level change map. Water-level changes in the 73 wells ranged from -16.2 to 4.1 feet over the 20-year period. Rises in water levels in Lahontan Valley may correspond to annual changes in available irrigation water, increased canal flows after the exceptionally dry and shortened irrigation season of 1992, and the increased conveyance of water rights transferred to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. Water-level declines generally occurred near the boundary of irrigated areas and may be associated with groundwater pumping, water-right transfers, and inactive surface-water storage reservoirs. The largest water-level declines were in the area near Carson Lake.

Groundwater-level response to water-right transfers was evaluated by comparing simulated and observed water-level changes for periods representing water-right transfers and a shortened irrigation season in areas near Fallon and Stillwater, Nevada. In the Stillwater modeled area, water rights associated with nearly 50 percent of the irrigated land were transferred from 1992 to 1998, represented by the model scenario reduction in groundwater recharge by 50 percent. The scenario resulted in a simulated average decline of 0.6 foot; average observed water-level change for the modeled area was estimated to be 0.0 foot, or no change. In the Fallon modeled area, transfers of water rights associated with 180 acres of land occurred from 1994 to 2008. The transfer is most similar to the scenario for removal of 320 acres of irrigated land. The model scenario resulted in simulated water-level declines of 0.1; water levels measured from 1994 to 2012 indicate no significant trends in water levels, or approximately zero change in water levels, for the Fallon modeled area.

The model scenarios included the simulation of a irrigation season shortened by 50 percent, which was determined to have occurred in the 1992 irrigation season in both modeled areas. The shortening of the irrigation season in the Fallon modeled area resulted in simulated water-level declines of 1.1 feet; observed declines were estimated to be 1.3 feet. The Stillwater model simulations resulted in a simulated decline of 1.4 feet, and observed water levels declined an estimated 2.3 feet for the area. The estimated difference between simulated and observed water levels are 0.2 and 0.9 foot for the Fallon and Stillwater modeled areas, respectively. Observed water-level changes were generally within one standard deviation of changes from model simulations, based on the selected periods of comparison. Simulated and observed water-level changes agree well, generally within 1 foot; however, the model scenarios were only approximately similar to the observed conditions, and periods of comparison were generally shorter for the observed periods and included additional cumulative effects of water-right transfers. Climate variability was not considered in the model scenarios.

Publication Year 2016
Title Groundwater-level change and evaluation of simulated water levels for irrigated areas in Lahontan Valley, Churchill County, west-central Nevada, 1992 to 2012
DOI 10.3133/sir20165045
Authors David W. Smith, Susan G. Buto, Toby L. Welborn
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2016-5045
Index ID sir20165045
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nevada Water Science Center