Comparison of methods for estimating ground-water recharge and base flow at a small watershed underlain by fractured bedrock in the Eastern United States

Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5038

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This study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), U.S. Department of Agriculture, compared multiple methods for estimating ground-water recharge and base flow (as a proxy for recharge) at sites in east-central Pennsylvania underlain by fractured bedrock and representative of a humid-continental climate. This study was one of several within the USGS Ground-Water Resources Program designed to provide an improved understanding of methods for estimating recharge in the eastern United States. Recharge was estimated on a monthly and annual basis using four methods?(1) unsaturated-zone drainage collected in gravity lysimeters, (2) daily water balance, (3) water-table fluctuations in wells, and (4) equations of Rorabaugh. Base flow was estimated by streamflow-hydrograph separation using the computer programs PART and HYSEP. Estimates of recharge and base flow were compared for an 8-year period (1994-2001) coinciding with operation of the gravity lysimeters at an experimental recharge site (Masser Recharge Site) and a longer 34-year period (1968-2001), for which climate and streamflow data were available on a 2.8-square-mile watershed (WE-38 watershed). Estimates of mean-annual recharge at the Masser Recharge Site and WE-38 watershed for 1994-2001 ranged from 9.9 to 14.0 inches (24 to 33 percent of precipitation). Recharge, in inches, from the various methods was: unsaturated-zone drainage, 12.2; daily water balance, 12.3; Rorabaugh equations with PULSE, 10.2, or RORA, 14.0; and water-table fluctuations, 9.9. Mean-annual base flow from streamflow-hydrograph separation ranged from 9.0 to 11.6 inches (21-28 percent of precipitation). Base flow, in inches, from the various methods was: PART, 10.7; HYSEP Local Minimum, 9.0; HYSEP Sliding Interval, 11.5; and HYSEP Fixed Interval, 11.6. Estimating recharge from multiple methods is useful, but the inherent differences of the methods must be considered when comparing results. For example, although unsaturated-zone drainage from the gravity lysimeters provided the most direct measure of potential recharge, it does not incorporate spatial variability that is contained in watershed-wide estimates of net recharge from the Rorabaugh equations or base flow from streamflow-hydrograph separation. This study showed that water-level fluctuations, in particular, should be used with caution to estimate recharge in low-storage fractured-rock aquifers because of the variability of water-level response among wells and sensitivity of recharge to small errors in estimating specific yield. To bracket the largest range of plausible recharge, results from this study indicate that recharge derived from RORA should be compared with base flow from the Local-Minimum version of HYSEP.

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USGS Numbered Series
Comparison of methods for estimating ground-water recharge and base flow at a small watershed underlain by fractured bedrock in the Eastern United States
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Scientific Investigations Report
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U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Pennsylvania Water Science Center
37 p.