Groundwater/surface-water interactions in the Bad River Watershed, Wisconsin

Scientific Investigations Report 2015-5162
Prepared in cooperation with the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs
By: , and 



A groundwater-flow model was developed for the Bad River Watershed and surrounding area by using the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) finite-difference code MODFLOW-NWT. The model simulates steady-state groundwater-flow and base flow in streams by using the streamflow routing (SFR) package. The objectives of this study were to: (1) develop an improved understanding of the groundwater-flow system in the Bad River Watershed at the regional scale, including the sources of water to the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation (Reservation) and groundwater/surface-water interactions; (2) provide a quantitative platform for evaluating future impacts to the watershed, which can be used as a starting point for more detailed investigations at the local scale; and (3) identify areas where more data are needed. This report describes the construction and calibration of the groundwater-flow model that was subsequently used for analyzing potential locations for the collection of additional field data, including new observations of water-table elevation for refining the conceptualization and corresponding numerical model of the hydrogeologic system.

The study area can be conceptually divided into three primary hydrogeologic environments. The first encompasses the southern uplands with relatively low topographic relief, where groundwater-flow is unconfined and occurs primarily in sandy till and glacial outwash overlying Archean-aged crystalline bedrock. The second includes a transitional area of higher topographic relief and shallow depth to bedrock, in the vicinity of ridges formed by steeply dipping, early-Proterozoic aged metasedimentary units of the Marquette Range Supergroup (including the Ironwood Formation), and late-Proterozoic igneous units associated with the Midcontinent Rift System (MRS). Groundwater-flow in this area likely occurs primarily through connected networks of bedrock fractures that are not well characterized, and also in isolated pockets of Quaternary deposits. The third and last hydrogeologic environment includes lowlands along Lake Superior where a deep sandstone aquifer is confined by thick deposits of clay-rich till.

Model input was compiled by using both published and unpublished data. Constant flux boundary conditions for the model perimeter were developed from a regional analytic element model described in appendix 1 of this report. Pumping from 26 high-capacity wells within the model area was included. The SFR stream network was developed from the National Hydrography Dataset (NHDPlus Version 2) and hydrography from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). Hydraulic conductivity values were determined for each model cell by interpolation from a network of pilot points, within zones representing major hydrogeologic units.

Recharge to the groundwater system was estimated on a cell-by-cell basis by using the Soil Water Balance code (SWB), with gridded daily temperature and precipitation data for the period 1980–2011, and GIS coverages of soil and land-surface conditions. Estimated recharge varies considerably, following spatial patterns in the precipitation and soil hydrologic group inputs. The lowest recharge values occur in the Superior lowlands, whereas the highest values occur in the upland areas, especially those underlain by sandy soils, and in the vicinity of bedrock hills.

The model was calibrated to groundwater-levels and base flows obtained from the USGS National Water Information System (NWIS) database, and groundwater-levels obtained from the WDNR and Band River Band well-construction databases. Calibration was performed via nonlinear regression by using the parameter-estimation software suite PEST. Groundwater levels and base-flow observations in the calibration dataset were well simulated by the calibrated model, with reasonable values of hydraulic conductivity. The pilot-point parameters that were most constrained by observations during model calibration coincided with the locations containing the most wells (head observations)—especially the population centers of Ashland, Mellen, and other communities along the major highway corridors.

Results from the calibrated model illustrate differences in the nature of groundwater-flow within the watershed. In the southern part of the watershed, where bedrock is shallow, groundwater flow paths are relatively short, extending from local recharge areas to adjacent first and second-order streams. In contrast, laterally continuous deposits of clay-rich till covering the Superior Lowlands isolate most smaller streams from the sandstone aquifer, allowing for longer flow paths toward larger streams such as the Bad, Marengo, and White Rivers. Approximately three-quarters of all first-order stream cells were dry in the Superior Lowlands, compared to only half of first-order stream cells in the southern bedrock uplands.

The model was used to delineate the groundwatershed for the Bad and Kakagon Rivers. “Groundwatershed” is defined as the area contributing groundwater discharge to one of these streams and their tributaries. The groundwatershed was found to align closely with the surface-watershed, with the most notable exception occurring along the southwestern half of Birch Hill, where surface water drains southwest towards the Potato River, and groundwater flows north and east towards Lake Superior. Similarly, the contributing area of groundwater-flow to the Reservation was delineated. Results indicate the off-Reservation groundwater contributing area to be limited in comparison to the extent of the watershed, extending southward into the highlands underlain by MRS igneous rock units, but not further into the area underlain by the Marquette Range Supergroup.

Stable isotope samples were collected from 54 wells within the watershed, to investigate sources of groundwater. Oxygen-18 (δ 18O) values lower than -13.0 per mil were documented in the sampling, and likely indicate the presence of recharge water from the last glacial period (>9,500 years old) beneath the northern portion of the Reservation, in the vicinity of Odanah, Wisconsin.

Finally, a new data-worth analysis of potential new monitoring-well locations was performed by using the model. The relative worth of new measurements was evaluated based on their ability to increase confidence in model predictions of groundwater levels and base flows at 35 locations, under the condition of a proposed open-pit iron mine. Results of the new data-worth analysis, and other inputs and outputs from the Bad River model, are available through an online dynamic web mapping service at (

Suggested Citation

Leaf, A.T., Fienen, M.N., Hunt, R.J., and Buchwald, C.A., 2015, Groundwater/Surface-Water Interactions in the Bad River Watershed, Wisconsin: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2015–5162, 110 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Purpose and Scope
  • Geologic History
  • Hydrogeologic Setting and Conceptual Model of the Flow System
  • Water Use
  • Groundwater/Surface Water Modeling Approach
  • Calibration Results and Discussion
  • Model Results and Discussion
  • New Data-Worth Analysis
  • Stable Isotope Investigation
  • Assumptions and Limitations
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1—Analytic Element Screening Model
  • Appendix2—MODFLOW Model Construction
  • Appendix3—MODFLOW Model Calibration
  • Appendix4—Calibration Results
  • Appendix5—Table of StableIsotope Sampling Results
  • Appendix6—Additional Results from New Data-Worth Analysis

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Groundwater/surface-water interactions in the Bad River Watershed, Wisconsin
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2015-5162
DOI 10.3133/sir20155162
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Wisconsin Water Science Center
Description viii, 110 p.
Country United States
State Wisconsin
Other Geospatial Bad River Watershed
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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