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Volcanic aquifers of Hawai‘i—Hydrogeology, water budgets, and conceptual models

March 1, 2018

Hawai‘i’s aquifers have limited capacity to store fresh groundwater because each island is small and surrounded by saltwater. Saltwater also underlies much of the fresh groundwater. Fresh groundwater resources are, therefore, particularly vulnerable to human activity, short-term climate cycles, and long-term climate change. Availability of fresh groundwater for human use is constrained by the degree to which the impacts of withdrawal—such as lowering of the water table, saltwater intrusion, and reduction in the natural discharge to springs, streams, wetlands, and submarine seeps—are deemed acceptable. This report describes the hydrogeologic framework, groundwater budgets (inflows and outflows), conceptual models of groundwater occurrence and movement, and the factors limiting groundwater availability for the largest and most populated of the Hawaiian Islands—Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Island.

The bulk of each of Hawai‘i’s islands is built of many thin lava flows erupted from shield volcanoes; the great piles of lava flows form highly permeable aquifers. In some areas, low-permeability dikes cutting across the lava flows, or low-permeability ash and soil horizons interlayered with the lava flows, can substantially alter groundwater flow. On some islands, sedimentary rocks form thick semiconfining coastal-plain deposits, locally known as caprock, that impede natural groundwater discharge to the ocean. In some regions, thick lava flows that ponded in preexisting depressions form aquifers that are much less permeable than aquifers formed by thin lava flows.

Fresh groundwater inflow to Hawai‘i’s aquifers comes from recharge. For predevelopment conditions (1870), estimates of groundwater recharge from this study are 871, 675, 1,279, and 5,291 million gallons per day (Mgal/d) for Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Island, respectively. Estimates of recharge for recent conditions (2010 land cover and 1978–2007 rainfall for Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, and Maui; 2008 land cover and 1916–1983 rainfall for Hawai‘i Island) are 875, 660, 1,308, and 6,595 Mgal/d for Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Island, respectively. Recent recharge values differ from predevelopment recharge values by only a few percent for all islands except Hawai‘i Island, where changes in forest cover affected recharge. Spatial distribution of recharge mimics the orographic rainfall pattern—recharge is high on windward slopes and mountain peaks below the top of the trade-wind inversion. Human activity such as irrigation also contributes to recharge in some areas.

Outflows from Hawai‘i’s aquifers include withdrawals from wells and natural groundwater discharge to springs, streams, wetlands, and submarine seeps. Under predevelopment conditions, groundwater withdrawal is assumed to be negligible and natural groundwater discharge probably was equal, or close, to recharge. Under recent conditions (2000–2010), groundwater withdrawal averaged 19, 209, 104, and 103 Mgal/d on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Island, respectively. If recent withdrawal and recharge rates are maintained until steady state is achieved, natural groundwater discharge will be reduced by an amount equal to the withdrawal rate. Total recent withdrawal for the four islands is only about 5 percent of total recharge, but about half of the withdrawal comes from O‘ahu, whereas O‘ahu receives only 7 percent of the total recharge. Effects of high withdrawals on O‘ahu cannot be mitigated by the lower withdrawals on other islands because no freshwater flows between islands. Even within an island, high withdrawals from one area cannot be completely mitigated by recharge in another area. Water-level, saltwater/freshwater-transition-zone, spring, and stream base-flow data indicate an overall reduction in storage for most areas where groundwater has been developed.

Groundwater occurrence and movement in Hawai‘i’s volcanic aquifers can be described in terms of four conceptual models: (1) fresh groundwater lenses in high-permeability lava-flow aquifers, (2) aquifers with groundwater impounded by dikes, (3) thickly saturated low-permeability aquifers, and (4) perched aquifers. In Hawai‘i, most fresh groundwater withdrawn for human use comes from freshwater lenses in the dike-free high-permeability lava-flow aquifers where the principal limiting factor to groundwater availability is saltwater intrusion, but impacts of reduced natural groundwater discharge may also limit availability. Dike-impounded groundwater is common near the center of Hawaiian shield volcanoes, where water moves and is stored in permeable lava flows between the dikes; groundwater availability in these aquifers is primarily limited by storage depletion and reduction of flow to adjacent aquifers and natural groundwater discharge. Thickly saturated low-permeability aquifers have been identified on Kaua‘i and Maui; groundwater availability is primarily limited by streamflow depletion and water-table decline. Perched groundwater is postulated to exist in some areas of Hawai‘i, but store much less water than other modes ofgroundwater occurrence. Limits on groundwater availability in perched aquifers include the potential of reducing inflow to other groundwater settings and reducing natural discharge and stream seepage. Some groundwater bodies in Hawai‘i are enigmatic; consequences of groundwater development in these bodies and their relation to groundwater availability are not completely understood.

Publication Year 2018
Title Volcanic aquifers of Hawai‘i—Hydrogeology, water budgets, and conceptual models
DOI 10.3133/sir20155164
Authors Scot K. Izuka, John A. Engott, Kolja Rotzoll, Maoya Bassiouni, Adam G. Johnson, Lisa D. Miller, Alan Mair
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2015-5164
Index ID sir20155164
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Pacific Islands Water Science Center