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Simulation of groundwater budgets and travel times for watersheds on the north shore of Long Island Sound, with implications for nitrogen-transport studies

November 30, 2021

Aquatic systems in and around the Long Island Sound (LIS) provide a variety of ecological and economic benefits, but in some areas of the LIS, aquatic ecosystems have become degraded by excess nitrogen. A substantial fraction of the nitrogen inputs to the LIS are transported through the groundwater-flow system. Because groundwater travel times in surficial aquifers can exceed 100 years, multiyear lags are introduced between inputs at the water table in recharge areas and discharge to inland or coastal receiving waters. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Long Island Sound Study, developed a steady-state groundwater model of the watersheds draining from the northern shore of the LIS for the purpose of calculating groundwater budgets and travel times to coastal waters.

The model was developed by using the MODFLOW–NWT software and existing spatial data on aquifers, river networks, land-surface altitudes, land cover, groundwater recharge, and water use. Coastal waters were delineated on the basis of the National Wetland Inventory; all non-coastal waters were collectively termed “inland waters.” A coarse-resolution model was calibrated by using the PEST++ software, long-term records of water levels in 65 wells, stream altitudes from 477 streams, base-flow records for 14 streamgages that are relatively unaffected by withdrawals, and error metrics based on incorrectly simulated flooding and incorrectly simulated dry streams. The calibrated values were used in a fine-resolution model in which the mean absolute residuals were 4.5 meters for groundwater levels, 1.3 meters for stream altitudes, and 7,200 cubic meters per day (2.9 cubic feet per second) for base flow. About 89 percent of the terrestrial cells were correctly simulated with the water table below land surface, and nearly 90 percent of the cells representing streams were correctly simulated as having the water table above the stream bottom. Together, these metrics suggest that this model is robust for simulating regional-scale groundwater patterns.

Simulated groundwater budgets were compiled for the entire study area, for each HUC12 (Hydrologic Unit Code no. 12) watershed and its adjacent coastal waters, if applicable, within the study area, and for 14 coastal-embayment watersheds. Most groundwater (90.6 percent of inflows) discharged to inland waters, with smaller fractions to coastal waters (7.0 percent) and well withdrawals (2.4 percent). When computed for HUC12 watersheds with coastal discharge, the portions of groundwater discharging to coastal waters ranged from 0.02 to 66 percent of groundwater outflows, with a median of 13 percent. Within priority-embayment watersheds, the portions of groundwater discharging to coastal waters ranged from 2 to 56 percent, with a median of 15 percent.

Groundwater travel times also were simulated for the entire study area, for each HUC12 watershed and its adjacent coastal waters, if applicable, within the study area and for 14 priority coastal embayments. Within the entire study area, the median groundwater travel time was 1.9 years, with an interquartile range of 0.1 to 5.9 years. Sensitivity analysis of groundwater travel times within a subbasin in the study area indicates that the travel times are a function of the grid resolution, with coarser grids resulting in shorter median travel times. Travel times for groundwater discharging to coastal waters were similar to travel times for groundwater discharging to inland waters, with a median of 1.9 years. Median travel times for the HUC12 watersheds ranged from 0.9 to 53.5 years, with a median of 1.8 years. Among HUC12 watersheds that include coastal areas, travel times for groundwater discharging to coastal waters ranged from less than 1 to 61.6 years, with a median of 2.8 years. The HUC12 watersheds with the longest simulated travel times were in the urban area near New York City where the model performance is less accurate. Median travel times for groundwater discharging to coastal waters within the priority-embayment watersheds ranged from less than 1 to 18.6 years, with a median of 2.3 years.

A more focused analysis was conducted for the Niantic River watershed to demonstrate the applicability of the regional model to local-scale nitrogen-transport analyses by using nitrogen-input and -attenuation rates from literature sources. Nitrogen inputs were estimated by using land-cover-based loading factors, and attenuation was estimated by using attenuation factors based on geologic zones and soil properties. Based on this analysis, groundwater transports an estimated 22,000 kilograms of nitrogen per year (2.9 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year) to streams, rivers, and coastal waters within the Niantic River watershed. Approximately 36 percent of discharging nitrogen is from atmospheric-deposition sources, 38 percent is from fertilizers, and 26 percent is from septic systems. Most of the groundwater-transported nitrogen (88 percent) discharges first to streams and rivers, with only 12 percent discharging directly to coastal waters. Travel times for groundwater-transported nitrogen ranged from less than 1 day to more than 100 years, with a median of 1.6 years.