Simulating groundwater flow in karst aquifers with distributed parameter models—Comparison of porous-equivalent media and hybrid flow approaches

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5116

A product of the Water Use and Availability Science Program



Understanding karst aquifers, for purposes of their management and protection, poses unique challenges. Karst aquifers are characterized by groundwater flow through conduits (tertiary porosity), and (or) layers with interconnected pores (secondary porosity) and through intergranular porosity (primary or matrix porosity). Since the late 1960s, advances have been made in the development of numerical computer codes and the use of mathematical model applications towards the understanding of dual (primary [matrix] and secondary [fractures and conduits]) porosity groundwater flow processes, as well as characterization and management of karst aquifers. The Floridan aquifer system (FAS) in Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina is composed of a thick sequence of predominantly carbonate rocks. Karst features are present over much of its area, especially in Florida where more than 30 first-magnitude springs occur, numerous sinkholes and submerged conduits have been mapped, and numerous circular lakes within sinkhole depressions are present. Different types of mathematical models have been applied for simulation of the FAS. Most of these models are distributed parameter models based on the assumption that, like a sponge, water flows through connected pores within the aquifer system and can be simulated with the same mathematical methods applied to flow through sand and gravel aquifers; these models are usually referred to as porous-equivalent media models. The partial differential equation solved for groundwater flow is the potential flow equation of fluid mechanics, which is used when flow is dominated by potential energy and has been applied for many fluid problems in which kinetic energy terms are dropped from the differential equation solved. In many groundwater model codes (basic MODFLOW), it is assumed that the water has a constant temperature and density and that flow is laminar, such that kinetic energy has minimal impact on flow. Some models have been developed that incorporate the submerged conduits as a one-dimensional pipe network within the aquifer rather than as discrete, extremely transmissive features in a porous-equivalent medium; these submerged conduit models are usually referred to as hybrid models and may include the capability to simulate both laminar and turbulent flow in the one-dimensional pipe network. Comparisons of the application of a porous-equivalent media model with and without turbulence (MODFLOW-Conduit Flow Process mode 2 and basic MODFLOW, respectively) and a hybrid (MODFLOW-Conduit Flow Process mode 1) model to the Woodville Karst Plain near Tallahassee, Florida, indicated that for annual, monthly, or seasonal average hydrologic conditions, all methods met calibration criteria (matched observed groundwater levels and average flows). Thus, the increased effort required, such as the collection of data on conduit location, to develop a hybrid model and its increased computational burden, is not necessary for simulation of average hydrologic conditions (non-laminar flow effects on simulated head and spring discharge were minimal). However, simulation of a large storm event in the Woodville Karst Plain with daily stress periods indicated that turbulence is important for matching daily springflow hydrographs. Thus, if matching streamflow hydrographs over a storm event is required, the simulation of non-laminar flow and the location of conduits are required. The main challenge in application of the methods and approaches for developing hybrid models relates to the difficulty of mapping conduit networks or having high-quality datasets to calibrate these models. Additionally, hybrid models have long simulation times, which can preclude the use of parameter estimation for calibration. Simulation of contaminant transport that does not account for preferential flow through conduits or extremely permeable zones in any approach is ill-advised. Simulation results in other karst aquifers or other parts of the FAS may differ from the comparison demonstrated herein.

Suggested Citation

Kuniansky, E.L., 2016, Simulating groundwater flow in karst aquifers with distributed parameter models—Comparison of porous-equivalent media and hybrid flow approaches: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2016–5116, 14 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Distributed Parameter Models
  • Model Application in the Woodville Karst Plain, Florida—Comparisons of Single-Continuum and Hybrid Models
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Simulating groundwater flow in karst aquifers with distributed parameter models—Comparison of porous-equivalent media and hybrid flow approaches
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Office of the AD Water
Report: v, 14 p.; Data Release
United States
Other Geospatial:
Woodville Karst Plain
Online Only (Y/N):