Preliminary investigation of the effects of sea-level rise on groundwater levels in New Haven, Connecticut

Open-File Report 2012-1025
Prepared in cooperation with Yale University
By: , and 



Global sea level rose about 0.56 feet (ft) (170 millimeters (mm)) during the 20th century. Since the 1960s, sea level has risen at Bridgeport, Connecticut, about 0.38 ft (115 mm), at a rate of 0.008 ft (2.56 mm + or - 0.58 mm) per year. With regional subsidence, and with predicted global climate change, sea level is expected to continue to rise along the northeast coast of the United States through the 21st century. Increasing sea levels will cause groundwater levels in coastal areas to rise in order to adjust to the new conditions. Some regional climate models predict wetter climate in the northeastern United States under some scenarios. Scenarios for the resulting higher groundwater levels have the potential to inundate underground infrastructure in lowlying coastal cities. New Haven is a coastal city in Connecticut surrounded and bisected by tidally affected waters. Monitoring of water levels in wells in New Haven from August 2009 to July 2010 indicates the complex effects of urban influence on groundwater levels. The response of groundwater levels to recharge and season varied considerably from well to well. Groundwater temperatures varied seasonally, but were warmer than what was typical for Connecticut, and they seem to reflect the influence of the urban setting, including the effects of conduits for underground utilities. Specific conductance was elevated in many of the wells, indicating the influence of urban activities or seawater in Long Island Sound. A preliminary steady-state model of groundwater flow for part of New Haven was constructed using MODFLOW to simulate current groundwater levels (2009-2010) and future groundwater levels based on scenarios with a rise of 3 ft (0.91 meters (m)) in sea level, which is predicted for the end of the 21st century. An additional simulation was run assuming a 3-ft rise in sea level combined with a 12-percent increase in groundwater recharge. The model was constructed from existing hydrogeologic information for the New Haven area and from new information on groundwater levels collected during October 2009-June 2010. For the scenario with a 3-ft rise in sea level and no increase in recharge, simulated groundwater levels near the coast rose 3 ft; this increased water level tapered off toward a discharge area at the only nontidal stream in the study area. Simulated stream discharge increased at the nontidal stream because of the increased gradient. Although groundwater levels rose, the simulated difference between the groundwater levels in the aquifer and the increased sea level declined, indicating that the depth to the interface between freshwater and saltwater may possibly decline. Simulated water levels were affected by rise in sea level even in areas where the water table was at 17-24 ft (5.2-7.3 m) above current (2011) sea level. For the scenario with increased recharge, simulated groundwater levels were as much as an additional foot higher at some locations in the study area. The results of this preliminary investigation indicate that groundwater levels in coastal areas can be expected to rise and may rise higher if groundwater recharge also increases. This finding has implications for the disposal of stormwater through infiltration, a low-impact development practice designed to improve water quality and reduce overland peak discharge. Other implications include increased risk of basement flooding and increased groundwater seepage into underground sewer pipes and utility corridors in some areas. These implications will present engineering challenges to New Haven and Yale University. The preliminary model developed for this study can be the starting point for further simulation of future alternative scenarios for sea-level rise and recharge. Further simulations could identify those areas of New Haven where infrastructure may be at greatest risk from rising levels of groundwater. The simulations described in this report have limitations due to the preliminary scope of the work. Approaches to improve simulations include but are not limited to incorporating: * The variable density of seawater into the model in order to understand the current and future location of the interface between freshwater and saltwater; * Collection of additional data in order to better resolve temporal and spatial patterns in water levels in the aquifer; * Improved estimates of recharge through direct and indirect measurements of freshwater discharge from the study area; and * Transient simulations for greater understanding of the amount of time required for water levels and the position of the interface between freshwater and saltwater to adjust to changes in sea level and recharge.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Preliminary investigation of the effects of sea-level rise on groundwater levels in New Haven, Connecticut
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2012-1025
DOI 10.3133/ofr20121025
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Connecticut Water Science Center
Description v, 46 p.
Country United States
State Connecticut
City New Haven
Other Geospatial New Haven Harbor;West River;Mill River
Scale 24000
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
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