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Hydrologic assessment of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

March 19, 2018

The Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (hereafter Forsythe refuge or the refuge) is situated along the central New Jersey coast and provides a mixture of freshwater and saltwater habitats for numerous bird, wildlife, and plant species. Little data and information were previously available regarding the freshwater dynamics that support the refuge’s ecosystems. In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted an assessment of the hydrologic resources and processes in the refuge and surrounding areas to provide baseline information for evaluating restoration projects and future changes in the hydrologic system associated with climate change and other anthropogenic stressors.

During spring 2015, water levels were measured at groundwater and surface-water sites in and near the Forsythe refuge. These water-level measurements, along with surface-water elevations obtained from digital elevation models, were used to construct water-table-elevation and depth-to-water maps of the refuge and surrounding areas. Water-table elevations in the refuge ranged from sea level to approximately 65 feet above sea level; in most of the refuge, the water-table elevation was within 3 feet of sea level. The water-table-elevation map indicates that the direction of shallow groundwater flow at the regional scale is generally from west to east (much of it from the northwest to the southeast), and groundwater moves downgradient from the uplands toward major groundwater discharge areas consisting of coastal streams and wetlands. The depth to water is estimated to be less than 2 feet for approximately 86 percent of the refuge, which coincides closely with the percentage of wetland area in the refuge. Depth to water in excess of 20 feet below land surface is limited to higher elevation areas of the refuge.

Streamflow data collected at continuous-record streamgages and partial-record stations within the Mullica-Toms Basin were summarized. Hydrograph separation of streamflow data for eight streamgages (2004–13) reveals that base flow accounts for 68–94 percent of streamflow in basins upstream from the refuge. The high base-flow inputs underscore the importance of groundwater as a source of freshwater that supports both the streams that flow into the refuge and the hydroecology of the contributing basins. Mean annual flow typically ranged from 1.7 to 2.1 cubic feet per second per square mile at the streamgages (2004–13) and between 1.2 and 2.3 cubic feet per second per square mile at the partial-record stations (1965–2015) but was notably greater or lower than these ranges at several stations.

Mean annual water budgets were estimated for multiple regions of the refuge for 2004–13 using data compiled from nearby meteorological stations and groundwater flows derived from previously calibrated groundwater-flow models. Precipitation, groundwater recharge, and evapotranspiration were estimated from available data; direct runoff was calculated as the residual component of the water balance. Groundwater recharge rates were greatest in the upland-dominated areas of the refuge with estimates of 14.4 to 18.9 inches per year, which are equivalent to 30 to 40 percent of precipitation. Groundwater recharge rates were nearly zero in the central coastal areas because these areas are major groundwater discharge zones, the water table is near land surface, the subsurface is close to saturation and cannot accept much recharge, and much of the area is underlain by thick marsh deposits likely with low permeability. Estimates of evapotranspiration varied from about 26 inches per year in the upland-dominated areas to more than 35 inches per year in the coastal wetlands, equivalent to 55–79 percent of mean annual precipitation, indicating that it is a major component of the hydrodynamics of the Forsythe refuge.

On the basis of output from previously calibrated groundwater-flow models, nearly all of the groundwater exiting the surficial aquifer system in the central coastal areas of the refuge is discharged to wetlands, which highlights the importance of groundwater discharge in supporting the ecosystems of the Forsythe refuge. In the central coastal areas, horizontal flow contributes more than 90 percent of the groundwater flow to the surficial system, indicating that the upbasin areas are a substantial source of water that ultimately discharges to streams and wetlands in the refuge.

Publication Year 2018
Title Hydrologic assessment of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
DOI 10.3133/sir20175088
Authors Christine M. Wieben, Mary M. Chepiga
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2017-5088
Index ID sir20175088
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New Jersey Water Science Center