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Hydrologic models and analysis of water availability in Cuyama Valley, California

August 14, 2014

Changes in population, agricultural development practices (including shifts to more water-intensive crops), and climate variability are placing increasingly larger demands on available water resources, particularly groundwater, in the Cuyama Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in Santa Barbara County. The goal of this study was to produce a model capable of being accurate at scales relevant to water management decisions that could be considered in the evaluation of the sustainable water supply. The Cuyama Valley Hydrologic Model (CUVHM) was designed to simulate the most important natural and human components of the hydrologic system, including components dependent on variations in climate, thereby providing a reliable assessment of groundwater conditions and processes that can inform water users and help to improve planning for future conditions. Model development included a revision of the conceptual model of the flow system, construction of a precipitation-runoff model using the Basin Characterization Model (BCM), and construction of an integrated hydrologic flow model with MODFLOW-One-Water Hydrologic Flow Model (MF-OWHM). The hydrologic models were calibrated to historical conditions of water and land use and, then, used to assess the use and movement of water throughout the Valley. These tools provide a means to understand the evolution of water use in the Valley, its availability, and the limits of sustainability.

The conceptual model identified inflows and outflows that include the movement and use of water in both natural and anthropogenic systems. The groundwater flow system is characterized by a layered geologic sedimentary sequence that—in combination with the effects of groundwater pumping, natural recharge, and the application of irrigation water at the land surface—displays vertical hydraulic-head gradients. Overall, most of the agricultural demand for water in the Cuyama Valley in the initial part of the growing season is supplied by groundwater, which is augmented by precipitation during wet winter and spring seasons. In addition, the amount of groundwater used for irrigation varies from year to year in response to climate variation and can increase dramatically in dry years. Model simulation results, however, also indicated that irrigation may have been less efficient during wet years. Agricultural pumpage is a major component to simulated outflow that is often poorly recorded. Therefore, an integrated, coupled farm-process model is used to estimate historical pumpage for water-balance subregions that evolved with the development of groundwater in the Valley from 1949 through 2010. The integrated hydrologic model includes these water-balance subregions and delineates natural, municipal, and agricultural land use; streamflow networks; and groundwater flow systems. The redefinition of the geohydrologic framework (including the internal architecture of the sedimentary units) and incorporation of these units into the simulation of the regional groundwater flow system indicated that faults have compartmentalized the alluvial deposits into subregions, which have responded differently to regional groundwater flow, locations of recharge, and the effects of development. The Cuyama Valley comprises nine subregions grouped into three regional zones, the Main, Ventucopa Uplands, and Sierra Madre Foothills, which are fault bounded, represent different proportions of the three alluvial aquifers, and have different water quality.

The CUVHM uses MF-OWHM to simulate and assess the use and movement of water, including the evolution of land use and related water-balance regions. The model is capable of being accurate at annual to interannual time frames and at subregional to valley-wide spatial scales, which allows for analysis of the groundwater hydrologic budget for the water years 1950–2010, as well as potential assessment of the sustainable use of groundwater.

Simulated changes in storage over time showed that significant withdrawals from storage generally occurred not only during drought years (1976–77 and 1988–92) but also during the early stages of industrial agriculture, which was initially dominated by alfalfa production. Since the 1990s, agriculture has shifted to more water-intensive crops. Measured and simulated groundwater levels indicated substantial declines in selected subregions, mining of groundwater that is thousands to tens of thousands of years old, increased groundwater storage depletion, and land subsidence. Most of the recharge occurs in the upland regions of Ventucopa and Sierra Madre Foothills, and the largest fractions of pumpage and storage depletion occur in the Main subregion. The long-term imbalance between inflows and outflows resulted in simulated overdraft (groundwater withdrawals in excess of natural recharge) of the groundwater basin over the 61-year period of 1949–2010. Changes in storage varied considerably from year to year, depending on land use, pumpage, and climate conditions. Climatically driven factors can greatly affect inflows, outflows, and water use by more than a factor of two between wet and dry years. Although precipitation during inter-decadal wet years previously replenished the basin, the water use and storage depletion have lessened the effects of these major recharge events. Simulated and measured water-level altitudes indicated the presence of large areas where depressed water levels have resulted in large desaturated zones in the younger and Older Alluvium layers in the Main-zone subregions. The results of modeled projection of the base-case scenario 61 years into the future indicated that current supply-and-demand are unsustainable and will result in additional groundwater-level declines and related storage depletion and land subsidence. The reduced-supply and reduced-demand projections reduced groundwater storage depletion but may not allow for sustainable agriculture under current demands, agricultural practices, and land use.

Publication Year 2014
Title Hydrologic models and analysis of water availability in Cuyama Valley, California
DOI 10.3133/sir20145150
Authors R. T. Hanson, Lorraine E. Flint, Claudia C. Faunt, Dennis R. Gibbs, Wolfgang Schmid
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2014-5150
Index ID sir20145150
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center