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Simulation of potential groundwater recharge for the glacial aquifer system east of the Rocky Mountains, 1980–2011, using the Soil-Water-Balance Model

July 18, 2018

An understanding of the spatial and temporal extent of groundwater recharge is critical for many types of hydrologic assessments involving water quality, contaminant transport, ecosystem health, and sustainable use of groundwater. Annual potential groundwater recharge was simulated at a 1-kilometer resolution with the Soil-Water-Balance (SWB) model for the glacial aquifer system east of the Rocky Mountains, from central Montana east to Maine, for calendar years 1980–2011. The SWB model used high resolution meteorological, land cover, and soil hydrology datasets that are nationally consistent and publicly available. The SWB model computed daily potential groundwater recharge as precipitation in excess of interception, runoff, evapotranspiration, and soil-water storage capacity. Daily potential recharge values within each year of the simulation were summed to produce annual potential recharge rates. Potential recharge as described in this report is water that infiltrates vertically below the plant rooting zone and is assumed to reach the water table.

The calibrated SWB model in this report is called the glacial SWB model. Model calibration assumed that the area contributing to groundwater discharge equaled the surface watershed. The model was calibrated to stream base flows from 39 watersheds throughout the model domain that had hydrologic conditions appropriate for hydrograph separation. Base flows were calculated from daily streamflow records with the HYSEP local minimum hydrograph separation method The glacial SWB model reproduced the mean annual base-flow calibration targets well; the Nash-Sutcliffe efficiency coefficient was 0.94, and the root mean squared error was 1.28 inches per year.

The glacial SWB model provides insight into the spatial and temporal variability in potential annual recharge across the glacial aquifer system. About 20 percent of the active model area had an average potential recharge rate of less than 1 inch per year. Total precipitation, total recharge, and recharge as a percentage of precipitation increased from west to east. A substantial amount of the recharge water (39 percent) entering the glacial aquifer system travels through developed (urbanized) and agricultural landscapes, which are known to cause water-quality impairments. Regional climatic events, such as the 1988 to 1989 drought, are apparent in the potential recharge time series. Potential recharge generally increased across the glacial aquifer system between 2001 and 2011.

A comparison of the potential recharge from the glacial SWB model to previous broad-scale recharge estimates reveals several important considerations for future SWB modeling applications. Shifts in the overall distribution of potential recharge between separate models can be explained by methods used to generate base-flow calibration target datasets. Spatial patterns in potential recharge simulated by SWB models are strongly dependent on the data and assumptions used to assign model cells to hydrologic soil groups. A review of several SWB models used to estimate groundwater recharge (and not surface runoff) revealed that model results are most sensitive to input climatic data, followed by surface runoff (curve number) and root-zone depth parameters.