Groundwater flow model for the Little Plover River basin in Wisconsin’s Central Sands

Bulletin 111

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The Little Plover River is a groundwater-fed stream in the sand plains region of central Wisconsin. In this region, sandy sediment deposited during or soon after the last glaciation forms an important unconfined sand and gravel aquifer. This aquifer supplies water for numerous high-capacity irrigation, municipal, and industrial wells that support a thriving agricultural industry. In recent years the addition of many new wells, combined with observed diminished flows in the Little Plover and other nearby rivers, has raised concerns about the impacts of the wells on groundwater levels and on water levels and flows in nearby lakes, streams, and wetlands. Diverse stakeholder groups, including well operators, Growers, environmentalists, local land owners, and regulatory and government officials have sought a better understanding of the local groundwater-surface water system and have a shared desire to balance the water needs of the he liagricultural, industrial, and urban users with the maintenance and protection of groundwater-dependent natural resources. To help address these issues, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources requested that the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and U.S. Geological Survey cooperatively develop a groundwater flow model that could be used to demonstrate the relationships among groundwater, surface water, and well withdrawals and also be a tool for testing and evaluating alternative water management strategies for the central sands region. Because of an abundance of previous studies, data availability, local interest, and existing regulatory constraints the model focuses on the Little Plover River watershed, but the modeling methodology developed during this study can apply to much of the larger central sands of Wisconsin. The

Little Plover River groundwater flow model simulates three-dimensional groundwater movement in and around the Little Plover River basin under steady-state and transient conditions. This model explicitly includes all high-capacity wells in the model domain and simulates seasonal variations in recharge and well pumping. The model represents the Little Plover River, and other significant streams and drainage ditches in the model domain, as fully connected to the groundwater system, computes stream base flow resulting from groundwater discharge, and routes the flow along the stream channel. A separate soil-water-balance (SWB) model was used to develop groundwater recharge arrays as input for the groundwater flow model. The SWB model uses topography, soils, land use, and climatic data to estimate recharge as deep drainage from the soil zone. The SWB model explicitly includes recharge originating as irrigation water, and computes irrigation using techniques similar to those used by local irrigation operators.

The groundwater flow model uses the U.S. Geological Survey’s MODFLOW modeling code which is freely available, widely accepted, and commonly used by the groundwater community. The groundwater flow model and the SWB model use identical high-resolution numerical grids having model cells 100 feet on a side, with physical properties assigned to each grid cell. This grid allows accurate geographic placement of wells, streams, and other model features. The 3-dimensional grid has three layers; layers 1 and 2 represent the sand and gravel aquifer and layer 3 represents the underlying sandstone. The distribution of material properties in the model (hydraulic conductivity, aquifer thickness, etc.) comes from previous published geologic studies of the region, updated by calibration to recent streamflow and groundwater level data. The SWB model operates on a daily time step. The groundwater flow model was calibrated to monthly stress periods with time steps ranging from 1 to 16 days. More detailed time discretization is possible.

The groundwater model was calibrated to water-level and streamflow data collected during 2013 and 2014 by adjusting model parameters (primarily hydraulic conductivity, storage, and recharge) until the model produced a conditionally optimal fit between field observations and model output, subject to consistency with previously published geologic studies. Calibration was performed under both steady and transient conditions, and used a sophisticated parameter-estimation procedure (PEST) for the calibration process and to identify important model parameters. For the Little Plover River, the two most important parameters are the global recharge multiplier and the hydraulic conductivity of the stream bed. The calibrated model produces water-level and mass-balance results that are consistent with field observations and previous studies of the area.

The completed model is a powerful tool for testing and demonstrating alternative water-management scenarios. Example model applications described in this report include simulating how the cumulative impacts of pumping and land-use change have affected average baseflow in the Little Plover River. Depletion-potential mapping represents a method for predicting which wells and well locations have the greatest impact on nearby surface-water resources.

The completed model is publicly available, along with a companion user’s guide to assist with its operation, at river-groundwater-model.

Study Area

Additional publication details

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Publication Subtype:
Other Report
Groundwater flow model for the Little Plover River basin in Wisconsin’s Central Sands
Series title:
Series number:
Year Published:
Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey
Publisher location:
Madison, WI
Contributing office(s):
Wisconsin Water Science Center
Zip file: Report: x, 82 p., Appendixes 1-8
United States
Other Geospatial:
Little Plover River watershed