Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Hydrogeology and simulation of groundwater flow in the Lucerne Valley groundwater basin, California

June 28, 2022

The Lucerne Valley is in the southwestern part of the Mojave Desert and is about 75 miles northeast of Los Angeles, California. The Lucerne Valley groundwater basin encompasses about 230 square miles and is separated from the Upper Mojave Valley groundwater basin by splays of the Helendale Fault. Since its settlement, groundwater has been the primary source of water for agricultural, industrial, municipal, and domestic uses. Groundwater withdrawal from pumping has exceeded the amount of water recharged to the basin, causing groundwater declines of more than 100 feet between 1917 and 2016 in the center of the basin. The continued withdrawal has resulted in an increase in pumping costs, reduced well efficiency, and land subsidence near Lucerne Lake. Although the volume of pumping has declined in recent years, there is concern that new agricultural growth and limits on imported water will continue to strain the sustainability of the groundwater system.

To address these concerns, the U.S. Geological Survey entered into a cooperative agreement with the Mojave Water Agency to develop a better understanding of the Lucerne Valley hydrogeologic system and provide tools to help evaluate and manage the effects of future development in the Lucerne Valley. The objectives of this study were to (1) improve the understanding of the aquifer system, (2) improve the understanding of subsidence in the basin, and (3) incorporate the understanding into a groundwater-flow model that can be used to help manage the groundwater resources in the Lucerne Valley. The model developed for this study covers the period of 1942–2016 and can help evaluate various proposed water-management scenarios during different climatic and hydrologic conditions.

The aquifer system consists of a shallow aquifer, a confining unit, and middle and lower aquifers. These layered water-bearing units were identified based on geologic units of the mostly unconsolidated sediments and hydrologic properties. These alluvial deposits consist of clay, silt, sand, and gravel; some places also contain clay and silty clay lacustrine deposits. Several faults act, at least in part, as barriers to groundwater flow on the eastern, southern, and western edges of the basin. Present-day natural recharge is primarily from the infiltration of runoff from the San Bernardino Mountains to the south; however, stable and radioactive isotopes show that groundwater from the middle of the Lucerne Valley was older than about 10,000 years and probably was recharged as infiltration from streams draining the mountains in the Mojave Desert to the north, which probably does not occur under present-day climatic conditions. The annual average natural recharge for 1942–2016, estimated by a Basin Characterization Model, was about 635 acre-feet per year; the average amount of treated wastewater effluent transferred to the Lucerne Valley for artificial recharge annually ranged from about 1,500 to 4,000 acre-feet per year during 1980–2016. Pumpage estimates for 1942–2016 ranged from about 3,000 acre-feet in 1942 to about 18,300 acre-feet in 1984. The total cumulative amount of groundwater removed from the basin by pumping between 1942 and 2016 was estimated to be about 700,000 acre-feet, which was about 10 times greater than the cumulative amount of recharge to the entire Lucerne Valley groundwater basin. Before groundwater development, the direction of groundwater flow was from the southern part of the basin northward to discharge areas near Lucerne Lake, where it discharged through springs along the Helendale Fault and by evapotranspiration. Since the early 1900s, groundwater-level declines have mostly eliminated the areas where natural discharge occurred and exceeded 100 feet in the middle of the basin between the early 1950s and mid-1990s, and as much as 25 feet near the margins from about the mid-1950s to 2000s. A decrease in the rate of pumping after the mid-1990s lessened the hydraulic stress on the middle and lower aquifers and enabled hydraulic heads in the middle of the basin to recover slightly as groundwater near the margins of the basin moved toward the pumping depression. Although trends in groundwater levels in the center of the basin have reversed since the mid-1990s, levels at the basin margins continue to decline as the movement of groundwater from the margins fills the pumping depression and gradually flattens the groundwater table throughout the basin.

The long-term extraction of groundwater and associated dewatering of the fine-grained sediments present within the aquifer system has resulted in aquifer compaction and consequently land subsidence, primarily near Lucerne Lake. Analysis of interferometric synthetic aperture radar data shows that almost 11 inches of land subsidence has occurred south of Lucerne Lake between April 1992 and November 2009; less subsidence occurred elsewhere in the basin during this period. This differential land subsidence has caused fissures and cracks in the ground surface, which have buckled the pavement and undercut roads in several locations.

The Lucerne Valley Hydrologic Model was developed using the finite-difference groundwater modeling software One Water Hydrologic Model to represent the hydrologic conditions and stresses during 1942–2016. The model has a uniform grid of approximately 92 acres per cell (2,000 feet by 2,000 feet) and has four layers representing the water-bearing units. The results from the calibrated model simulations indicated that groundwater pumpage exceeded recharge, resulting in an estimated net cumulative depletion of groundwater storage (discharge minus recharge) of about 465,000 acre-feet from 1942 to 2016. The model simulated as much as 7.5 feet (90 inches; 2,286 millimeters) of aquifer compaction, which indicates the extensive fine-grained deposits and measured subsidence near Lucerne Lake.

Publication Year 2022
Title Hydrogeology and simulation of groundwater flow in the Lucerne Valley groundwater basin, California
DOI 10.3133/sir20225048
Authors Christina Stamos-Pfeiffer, Joshua Larsen, Robert E. Powell, Jonathan C. Matti, Peter Martin
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2022-5048
Index ID sir20225048
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center; Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center