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Assessment of groundwater availability in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system From Long Island, New York, to North Carolina

Professional Paper 1829

By:
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https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1829

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Executive Summary

The U.S. Geological Survey began a multiyear regional assessment of groundwater availability in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain (NACP) aquifer system in 2010 as part of its ongoing regional assessments of groundwater availability of the principal aquifers of the Nation. The goals of this national assessment are to document effects of human activities on water levels and groundwater storage, explore climate variability effects on the regional water budget, and provide consistent and integrated information that is useful to those who use and manage the groundwater resource. As part of this nationwide assessment, the USGS evaluated available groundwater resources within the NACP aquifer system from Long Island, New York, to northeastern North Carolina.

The northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province depends heavily on groundwater to meet agricultural, industrial, and municipal needs. The groundwater assessment of the NACP aquifer system included an evaluation of how water use has changed over time; this evaluation primarily used groundwater budgets and development of a numerical modeling tool to assess system responses to stresses from future human uses and climate trends.

This assessment focused on multiple spatial and temporal scales to examine changes in groundwater pumping, storage, and water levels. The regional scale provides a broad view of the sources and demands on the system with time. The sub-regional scale provides an evaluation of the differing response of the aquifer system across geographic areas allowing for closer examination of the interaction between different aquifers and confining units and the changes in these interactions under pumping and recharge conditions in 2013 and hydrologic stresses as much as 45 years in the future. By focusing on multiple scales, water-resource managers may utilize this study to understand system response to changes as they affect the system as a whole.

The NACP aquifer system extends from Long Island to northeastern North Carolina, and includes aquifers primarily within New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The seaward-dipping sedimentary wedge that underlies the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province forms a complex groundwater system. Although the NACP aquifer system is recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey as one of the smallest of the 66 principal aquifer systems in the Nation, it ranks 13th overall in terms of total groundwater withdrawals and is 7th in population served. Despite abundant precipitation [about 45 inches per year (in/yr)], the supply of fresh surface water in this region is limited because many of the surface waters in this area are brackish estuaries, contributing to why many communities in the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province rely heavily on groundwater to meet their water needs.

Increases in population and changes in land use during the past 100 years have resulted in diverse increased demands for freshwater throughout the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province with groundwater serving as a vital source of drinking water for the nearly 20 million people who live in the region. Total groundwater withdrawal in 2013 was estimated to be about 1,300 million gallons per day (Mgal/d) and accounts for about 40 percent of the drinking water supply with the densely populated areas tending to have the highest rates of withdrawals and, therefore, being most susceptible to effects from these withdrawals over time.

Water levels in many of the confined aquifers are decreasing by as much as 2 feet per year (ft/yr) in response to extensive development and subsequent increased withdrawals throughout the region. Total water-level decreases (drawdowns) are more than 100 feet (ft) in some aquifers from their predevelopment (before 1900) levels. These drawdowns extend across state lines and under the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, creating the potential for interstate aquifer management issues. Regional water-resources managers in the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province face challenges beyond competing local domestic, industrial, agricultural, and environmental demands for water. Large changes in regional water use have made the State-level management of aquifer resources more difficult because of hydrologic effects that extend beyond State boundaries.

The northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province is underlain by a wedge of unconsolidated to partially consolidated sediments that are typically thousands of feet thick along the coastline with a maximum thickness of about 10,000 ft near the edge of the continental shelf. The NACP aquifer system consists of nine confined aquifers and nine confining units capped by an unconfined surficial aquifer that is bounded laterally from the west by the contact between Coastal Plain sediments and the upland Piedmont bedrock. This aquifer system extends to the east to the limit of the Continental Shelf, however, the boundary between fresh and saline groundwater is considered to be much closer to the shoreline and varies vertically by aquifer.

Precipitation over the region for average conditions from 2005 to 2009 is about 61,800 Mgal/d, but about 70 percent of it is lost to evapotranspiration resulting in an inflow of about 19,600 Mgal/d entering the groundwater system as aquifer recharge. Most of this recharge enters the aquifer system and flows through the shallow unconfined aquifer and either discharges to streams or directly to coastal waters without reaching the deep, confined aquifer system. In addition to recharge from precipitation, other sources of water include the return of wastewater from domestic septic systems of about 240 Mgal/d, about 60 Mgal/d of water released from storage in the confined system, and about 30 Mgal/d of lateral inflow at the boundary between freshwater and saltwater in response to pumping for conditions in 2013.

The outflow needed to balance the inflows was subdivided between streamflow, discharge to tidal portions of streams, and coastal discharge. The hydrologic budget developed for current [2013] conditions determined that 93 percent of the total outflow was to surface waters with about 70 percent divided evenly between streamflow and shallow coastal discharge and 23 percent as discharge to tidal waters. The remaining 7 percent of the total outflow components include withdrawals from both the surficial and confined aquifers of the groundwater system.

The groundwater availability assessment of the NACP aquifer system highlights the importance of analyses at both the regional and local scales to understand how changes in land use, water use, and climate have affected groundwater resources and how these resources may change in the future. The investigation included assessments of the regional changes in water levels and budgets across State lines, the importance of considering storage change in the confining units, the response of the aquifer system to a continuation of current [2013] hydrologic stresses into the future, and the potential effects of climate change and sea-level rise on the aquifer system.

The Potomac aquifer group includes two of the most widely used aquifers in the NACP aquifer system, the Potomac-Patapsco and Potomac-Patuxent regional aquifers, providing about 24 percent of the total groundwater used in the region. Withdrawals from large pumping centers in this deep, confined aquifer group have resulted in substantial decreases in water-levels across state lines, particularly between southern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina as well as between southern New Jersey and northern Delaware where water levels in the Potomac-Patapsco aquifer have decreased by as much as 200 ft and 50 ft, respectively from predevelopment to current [2013] conditions. This response in water levels also is reflected in changes in water budgets where, for example, about 20 percent of the total response to pumping in Virginia is met by inducing flow from adjacent States. Understanding and quantifying these hydrologic effects that extend beyond State boundaries is critical for the State- and regional-level management of aquifer resources.

The cumulative storage loss from the intervening confining units throughout the entire NACP aquifer system was about 35 percent of the total storage loss from predevelopment to current [2013] conditions. In geographic areas such as Delmarva Peninsula, Maryland, and New Jersey, the water released from storage in the confining units makes up the majority of the total storage release from the groundwater system and is becoming proportionally more important over time as the surficial aquifer approaches equilibrium with respect to pumping and recharge stresses as of 2013.

Storage loss from the confining units is of particular concern because, unlike in the sands that comprise the confined aquifers, water removed from the clayey confining unit sediments cannot be replenished as these units gradually compress. This non-recoverable storage loss, if great enough, can result in land subsidence where these units are thick and the release from storage is relatively large and contributes to increased concerns for sea-level rise in areas such as the lower portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

Groundwater usage increased dramatically in the NACP aquifer system during post-World War II era from the mid-1940s to early the 1980s, with withdrawals increasing from about 400 Mgal/d to more than 1,300 Mgal/d. Although groundwater withdrawals have been relatively constant since the early 1980s, about half of the total groundwater withdrawn from the NACP aquifer system since 1900 was withdrawn in the past 30 years. An analysis of the response of the groundwater system to a continuation of the current [2013] pumping for an additional 30 years into the future shows that the flow system continues to adjust in terms of changes in water budget components, water levels, and the boundary between freshwater and saltwater as it approaches equilibrium. The largest change in water budget components is the reduction in the amount of water released from storage.

Across the entire NACP aquifer system, the reduction of storage release from 7 to 4 percent of the total water budget change is accounted for by reductions in groundwater discharge to streams and coastal waters. Locally, a similar response is calculated for each of the geographic areas except for Virginia where the amount of water released from storage accounts for about 25 percent of the total change in water budget. This finding suggests that the groundwater flow system in Virginia is not approaching equilibrium under the current [2013] stresses and, therefore, water levels will continue to decrease even if the pumping remains constant.

An analysis of the change in water levels in the Potomac-Patapsco aquifer as pumping is continued 30 years into the future reveals that the largest decreases in water levels throughout the NACP aquifer system will occur in the southern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina parts of the study area. It is these areas that also see the greatest potential for increased lateral movement of saline groundwater in the deep, confined portion of the groundwater flow system in response to a continuation of the current [2013] pumping rates.

The potential effects of long-term climate change and variability on the hydrologic system and availability of water resources in the NACP aquifer system continue to be of serious societal concern. These concerns include the effects of changes in aquifer recharge and in sea-level rise on the groundwater flow system. An assessment of the potential effects of a prolonged drought during current [2013] pumping conditions indicated that the reductions in recharge associated with droughts, including additional irrigation withdrawals required to meet increased crop water demand, have the greatest effects on water levels and streamflows in the surficial aquifer, and changes in water levels in the confined aquifers primarily resulted from the increased withdrawals associated with increased irrigation pumping; this response was most apparent in the Delmarva Peninsula. These results suggest that water levels may not be susceptible to the effects of droughts in the confined aquifers of the NACP aquifer system not used for irrigation, unlike in the unconfined surficial aquifer.

A second analysis also was conducted to assess the effects of sea-level rise on the groundwater system throughout the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province because recent analyses of the relative rates of sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast indicate that the Mid-Atlantic region represents a hot spot with anomalously higher rates of sea-level rise than observed elsewhere in the United States. Groundwater levels rose from 0 to 3 ft in response to a 3-ft simulated change in sea-level position, with the largest response occurring along the shoreline and away from non-tidal streams. About 37 percent (or 10,000 square miles) of the area of the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province may experience about a 0.5-ft or more increase in water levels with the 3-ft increase in sea-level position, whereas about 18 percent (almost 5,000 square miles) of land of the northern Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province may experience a 2-ft or more increase in water levels with the 3-ft increase in sea-level position.

These increases in the water table are of particular concern in low-lying areas where the unsaturated (vadose) zone is already thin, thus creating concerns for groundwater inundation of subsurface infrastructure, such as basements, septic systems, and subway systems. This increase in the water table also will likely alter the distribution of groundwater discharge to surface-water bodies thus increasing groundwater flow to streams that would have otherwise discharged directly to coastal waters. Throughout the NACP aquifer system, this redistribution of groundwater discharge results in an additional 2 percent of base flow in streams. Although the increases in groundwater discharge to streams (and corresponding decreases in discharge to coastal waters) calculated for the entire NACP aquifer system and its geographic areas represent only a small increase compared with current [2013] conditions, this redistribution of groundwater discharge from the coast to streams locally can alter the delivery of freshwater input to coastal receiving waters and have ecohydrological implications on the sensitive ecosystems which rely on a balance of groundwater discharge and surface-water flow.

Suggested Citation

Masterson, J.P., Pope, J.P., Fienen, M.N., Monti, Jack, Jr., Nardi, M.R., and Finkelstein, J.S., 2016, Assessment of groundwater availability in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system from Long Island, New York, to North Carolina: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1829, 76 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/pp1829.

ISSN: 2330-7102 (online)

ISSN: 1044-9612 (print)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Foreword
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Conceptualization of the Hydrologic System
  • Simulation of the Hydrologic System
  • Simulation of Effects of Climate Change
  • Use of Numerical Models to Inform Groundwater Monitoring Networks
  • Challenges for Future Groundwater Availability Assessments—Lessons Learned
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Assessment of groundwater availability in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system From Long Island, New York, to North Carolina
Series title:
Professional Paper
Series number:
1829
DOI:
10.3133/pp1829
Year Published:
2016
Language:
English
Publisher:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
South Atlantic Water Science Center, New England Water Science Center
Description:
Report: ix, 76 p.; Data Releases
Country:
United States
State:
Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Virginia
Other Geospatial:
Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain
Online Only (Y/N):
N
Additional Online Files (Y/N):
Y