Groundwater-flow model of the northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5153

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The High Plains aquifer is a nationally important water resource underlying about 175,000 square miles in parts of eight states: Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Droughts across much of the Northern High Plains from 2001 to 2007 have combined with recent (2004) legislative mandates to elevate concerns regarding future availability of groundwater and the need for additional information to support science-based water-resource management. To address these needs, the U.S. Geological Survey began the High Plains Groundwater Availability Study to provide a tool for water-resource managers and other stakeholders to assess the status and availability of groundwater resources.

A transient groundwater-flow model was constructed using the U.S. Geological Survey modular three-dimensional finite-difference groundwater-flow model with Newton-Rhapson solver (MODFLOW–NWT). The model uses an orthogonal grid of 565 rows and 795 columns, and each grid cell measures 3,281 feet per side, with one variably thick vertical layer, simulated as unconfined. Groundwater flow was simulated for two distinct periods: (1) the period before substantial groundwater withdrawals, or before about 1940, and (2) the period of increasing groundwater withdrawals from May 1940 through April 2009. A soil-water-balance model was used to estimate recharge from precipitation and groundwater withdrawals for irrigation. The soil-water-balance model uses spatially distributed soil and landscape properties with daily weather data and estimated historical land-cover maps to calculate spatial and temporal variations in potential recharge. Mean annual recharge estimated for 1940–49, early in the history of groundwater development, and 2000–2009, late in the history of groundwater development, was 3.3 and 3.5 inches per year, respectively.

Primary model calibration was completed using statistical techniques through parameter estimation using the parameter estimation suite of software with Tikhonov regularization. Calibration targets for the groundwater model included 343,067 groundwater levels measured in wells and 10,820 estimated monthly stream base flows at streamgages. A total of 1,312 parameters were adjusted during calibration to improve the match between calibration targets and simulated equivalents. Comparison of calibration targets to simulated equivalents indicated that, at the regional scale, the model correctly reproduced groundwater levels and stream base flows for 1940–2009. This comparison indicates that the model can be used to examine the likely response of the aquifer system to potential future stresses.

Mean calibrated recharge for 1940–49 and 2000–2009 was smaller than that estimated with the soil-water-balance model. This indicated that although the general spatial patterns of recharge estimated with the soil-water-balance model were approximately correct at the regional scale of the Northern High Plains aquifer, the soil-water-balance model had overestimated recharge, and adjustments were needed to decrease recharge to improve the match of the groundwater model to calibration targets. The largest components of the simulated groundwater budgets were recharge from precipitation, recharge from canal seepage, outflows to evapotranspiration, and outflows to stream base flow. Simulated outflows to irrigation wells increased from 7 percent of total outflows in 1940–49 to 38 percent of 1970–79 total outflows and 49 percent of 2000–2009 total outflows.

Suggested Citation

Peterson, S.M., Flynn, A.T., and Traylor, J.P., 2016, Groundwater-flow model of the Northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2016–5153, 88 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Groundwater-Flow Model
  • Potential Topics for Additional Study
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Supplemental Information on Estimated and Simulated Stream Base Flow for 1940–2009

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Groundwater-flow model of the northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Nebraska Water Science Center
Report: x, 88 p.; 2 Figures: 11.00 x 8.50 inches; 2 Data Releases
Public Comments:
Water Availability and Use Science Program
United States
Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):