Updated numerical model with uncertainty assessment of 1950-56 drought conditions on brackish-water movement within the Edwards aquifer, San Antonio, Texas

Scientific Investigations Report 2015-5081
Prepared in cooperation with the San Antonio Water System
By: , and 

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Abstract

In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the San Antonio Water System, began a study to assess the brackish-water movement within the Edwards aquifer (more specifically the potential for brackish-water encroachment into wells near the interface between the freshwater and brackish-water transition zones, referred to in this report as the transition-zone interface) and effects on spring discharge at Comal and San Marcos Springs under drought conditions using a numerical model. The quantitative targets of this study are to predict the effects of higher-than-average groundwater withdrawals from wells and drought-of-record rainfall conditions of 1950–56 on (1) dissolved-solids concentration changes at production wells near the transition-zone interface, (2) total spring discharge at Comal and San Marcos Springs, and (3) the groundwater head (head) at Bexar County index well J-17. The predictions of interest, and the parameters implemented into the model, were evaluated to quantify their uncertainty so the results of the predictions could be presented in terms of a 95-percent credible interval.

The model area covers the San Antonio and Barton Springs segments of the Edwards aquifer; the history-matching effort was focused on the San Antonio segment. A previously developed diffuse-flow model of the Edwards aquifer, which forms the basis for the model in this assessment, is primarily based on a conceptualization in which flow in the aquifer is predominately through a network of numerous small fractures and openings. Primary updates to this model include an extension of the active area downdip, a conversion to an 8-layer SEAWAT variable-density flow and transport model to simulate dissolved-solids concentration effects on water density, history matching to 1999–2009 conditions, and parameter estimation in a highly parameterized context using automated methods in PEST (a model-independent Parameter ESTimation code).

In addition to the best-fit parameter values derived from history matching, the uncertainty of model parameters was also estimated by using linear uncertainty analysis. Comparison of “prior” (before history matching) and “posterior” (after history matching) variances of parameters indicate that the information within the observation dataset used for history matching informs many parameters. The concentration threshold parameters were well-informed by the observation dataset as their posterior distributions were much narrower than their prior distributions. The transition-zone scaling parameters of hydraulic conductivity, effective porosity, and specific storage were all informed by the observation dataset, as evidenced by the difference between the prior and posterior variances. Saline-zone scaling parameters, alternatively, were not informed by the observation dataset for effective porosity and specific storage. Resulting posterior drier-month, wetter-month, and annual recharge multiplier parameter variances are important to understanding how well recharge is estimated and implemented within the model. The shifts of the posterior distributions left and right indicate that there were zones where less or more water was needed in the model. The widths of the distributions were not decreased substantially, indicating that many of the best-fit recharge parameters are not statistically different from the initial values specified in the history-matching effort. Recharge from rainfall is the driving force behind groundwater flow and heads in the aquifer; therefore, an increase in understanding of this process would benefit model development by potentially decreasing the uncertainty of this parameter. The history-matching effort was most helpful in informing the parameters in the model that control discharge at springs, namely, the spring orifice (drain) altitude and drain conductance parameters for each spring.

The uncertainty assessment of the predictive model (a hypothetical recurrence of 1950–56 drought conditions and higher-than-average groundwater withdrawals from wells) provided insights into the potential effects of these conditions on dissolved-solids concentration changes at production wells near the transition-zone interface, discharges at Comal and San Marcos Springs, and heads at Bexar County index well J-17. Results at the 25 production wells near the transition-zone interface indicate that the uncertainty of model input parameters based on expert knowledge yielded an upper bound of the 95-percent credible interval of dissolved-solids concentrations that exceeds the secondary drinking water standards of 1,000 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for many wells. However, the history-matching process provided key information to inform prediction-sensitive model parameters and therefore, contributed to a substantial decrease of the upper bound of the 95-percent credible interval to below the secondary drinking water standards. Reductions in dissolved-solids concentration changes were on the order of 400 mg/L to 1,300 mg/L. The reduction in uncertainty in regards to this prediction implies that this prediction of dissolved-solids concentration change can be made with some certainty using this current model and that those parameters that control this prediction are informed by the observation dataset. Even though predictive uncertainty was reduced for this prediction, dissolved-solids concentration changes were still greater than zero, indicating a minimal increase in concentration at these 25 production wells during the 7-year simulation period is likely. However, this minimal concentration increase indicates a small potential for movement of the brackish-water transition zone near these wells during the 7-year simulation period of drought-ofrecord (1950–56) rainfall conditions with higher-than-average groundwater withdrawals by wells.

Predictive results of total spring discharge during the 7-year period, as well as head predictions at Bexar County index well J-17, were much different than the dissolved-solids concentration change results at the production wells. These upper bounds are an order of magnitude larger than the actual prediction which implies that (1) the predictions of total spring discharge at Comal and San Marcos Springs and head at Bexar County index well J-17 made with this model are not reliable, and (2) parameters that control these predictions are not informed well by the observation dataset during historymatching, even though the history-matching process yielded parameters to reproduce spring discharges and heads at these locations during the history-matching period. Furthermore, because spring discharges at these two springs and heads at Bexar County index well J-17 represent more of a cumulative effect of upstream conditions over a larger distance (and longer time), many more parameters (with their own uncertainties) are potentially controlling these predictions than the prediction of dissolved-solids concentration change at the prediction wells, and therefore contributing to a large posterior uncertainty.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Updated numerical model with uncertainty assessment of 1950-56 drought conditions on brackish-water movement within the Edwards aquifer, San Antonio, Texas
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2015-5081
DOI 10.3133/sir20155081
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Texas Water Science Center
Description viii, 54 p.
Country United States
State Texas
City San Antonio
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N