Hydrogeology and hydrologic conditions of the Ozark Plateaus aquifer system

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5137

Prepared in cooperation with the Groundwater Resources Program
, , , , and



The hydrogeology and hydrologic characteristics of the Ozark Plateaus aquifer system were characterized as part of ongoing U.S. Geological Survey efforts to assess groundwater availability across the Nation. The need for such a study in the Ozark Plateaus physiographic province (Ozark Plateaus) is highlighted by increasing demand on groundwater resources by the 5.3 million people of the Ozark Plateaus, water-level declines in some areas, and potential impacts of climate change on groundwater availability. The subject study integrates knowledge gained through local investigation within a regional perspective to develop a regional conceptual model of groundwater flow in the Ozark Plateaus aquifer system (Ozark system), a key phase of groundwater availability assessment. The Ozark system extends across much of southern Missouri and northwestern and north-central Arkansas and smaller areas of southeastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma. The region is one of the major karst landscapes in the United States, and karst aquifers are predominant in the Ozark system. Groundwater flow is ultimately controlled by aquifer and confining unit lithologies and stratigraphic relations, geologic structure, karst development, and the character of surficial lithologies and regolith mantle. The regolith mantle is a defining element of Ozark Plateaus karst, affecting recharge, karst development, and vulnerability to surface-derived contaminants. Karst development is more advanced—as evidenced by larger springs, hydraulic characteristics, and higher well yields—in the Salem Plateau and in the northern part of the Springfield Plateau (generally north of the Arkansas-Missouri border) as compared with the southern part of the Springfield Plateau in Arkansas, largely due to thinner, less extensive regolith and purer carbonate lithology.

Precipitation is the ultimate source of all water to the Ozark system, and the hydrologic budget for the Ozark system includes inputs from recharge, losing-stream sections, and groundwater inflows and losses of water to gaining-stream sections, groundwater withdrawals, and surface-water and groundwater outflows to neighboring systems. Groundwater recharge, estimated by a soil-water-balance model, represents about 24 percent, or 11 inches, of 43.9 inches annual precipitation. Recharge is spatially variable, being greater in the northern Springfield Plateau and Salem Plateau than in the southern Springfield Plateau (generally south of the Arkansas border) because of differences in regolith mantle extent and thickness and carbonate lithology and hydraulic properties. Increased precipitation and decreased agricultural land use during the period 1951 through 2011 increased recharge by approximately 5 percent. Although all Ozark streams have losing, neutral, and gaining sections, they are dominantly gaining and are a net sink for groundwater with nearly 90 percent of groundwater recharge returned to springs and streams. Groundwater pumping is a small but important loss of water in the Ozark system hydrologic budget; water-level declines and local cones of depression have been observed around pumping centers and strong concerns exist over potential effects on stream and spring flow.

Data indicate that societal needs for freshwater resources in the Ozark Plateaus will continue to increase and will do so in the context of changing climate and hydrology. Groundwater will continue to be an important part of supporting these societal needs and also local ecosystems. The unique character and hydrogeologic variability across the Ozark system will control how the system responds to future stress. Groundwater of the Ozark system in the northern study area is more dynamic, has greater storage and larger flux, and has greater potential for further development than in the part of the study area south of the Arkansas-Missouri border. Further south in Arkansas, a line exists, roughly defined as 5 miles south of the Springfield Plateau-Boston Mountains boundary, beyond which further extensive municipal or commercial development appears unlikely under current economic and resource-need conditions. A small part of the Ozark system groundwater budget is currently drafted for use, leaving an apparently large component available for further development and use—particularly in the northern Springfield Plateau and Salem Plateau; however, the effects of increased pumping on groundwater’s role in maintaining ecosystems and ecosystem services are not quantitatively well understood, and the close relation between groundwater and surface water highlights the importance of further quantitative assessment.

Suggested Citation

Hays, P.D., Knierim, K.J., Breaker, Brian, Westerman, D.A., and Clark, B.R., 2016, Hydrogeology and hydrologic conditions of the Ozark Plateaus aquifer system: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2016–5137, 61 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Hydrogeologic Framework
  • Hydrologic Conditions
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Hydrogeology and hydrologic conditions of the Ozark Plateaus aquifer system
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center
Report: vii, 61 p.; Appendixes: 1-2
United States
Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma
Other Geospatial:
Ozark Plateaus Aquifer System
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):