Groundwater Movement and Interaction with Surface Water near the Confluence of the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers, Nebraska, 2016–18

Scientific Investigations Report 2019-5048
Prepared in cooperation with the Papio-Missouri River and Lower Platte North Natural Resources Districts and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources
By: , and 

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Abstract

The State of Nebraska requires a sustainable balance between long-term water supplies and uses of groundwater and surface water and requires Natural Resources Districts to include the effect of groundwater use on surface-water systems as part of their respective integrated management plans. Recent droughts in Nebraska (2000–6; 2012–13) have amplified concerns about the long-term sustainability of groundwater and surface-water resources in the state, and concerns about the effect of groundwater irrigation on both streamflow and the water supplies needed to meet wildlife, recreational, and municipal needs. The lower Platte River provides nearly 100 percent of drinking-water supplies to Lincoln, Nebraska, 40 to 60 percent of drinking-water supplies to Omaha, Nebr., and critical aquatic and riparian habitat for threatened and endangered species. The Lower Platte River Basin-wide Management Plan has been jointly developed by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and seven Natural Resources Districts to address some of these concerns by managing groundwater and surface-water resources conjunctively.

To sustain flows in the lower Platte River that are needed for municipal water supplies, water managers have proposed projects aimed at temporary storage of surface water in upstream parts of the basin to mitigate periods of low flow in the lower Platte River. To increase scientific understanding and provide support for any potential future streamflow augmentation projects, the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District, and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey, initiated this study to examine groundwater/surface-water interaction along the lower Platte and Elkhorn Rivers upstream from their confluence. The study design described herein focused on understanding seasonal characteristics of groundwater movement and interaction with surface water during periods of high groundwater demand (June through August) and low groundwater demand (all other months). Understanding how groundwater movement and interaction with surface water are affected by streamflow conditions and local groundwater demand is critical to the development of any streamflow augmentation project intended to sustain streamflow and mitigate periods of low flow in the lower Platte River.

The characteristics of groundwater movement and interaction with surface water are affected by hydrologic and local climatic conditions. For the study area, 2016–18 conditions can be broadly characterized as above normal precipitation. The flows measured at the Elkhorn River at Waterloo, Nebr., streamflow-gaging station (U.S. Geological Survey station 06800500) were above the long-term median, and the streamflow of the Platte River near Leshara, Nebr., streamflow-gaging station (06796500) remained normal or slightly above normal for the duration of this study.

Continuous streamflow and water-level data were interpreted to examine differences in groundwater movement and interaction with surface water between the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers during high and low groundwater demand periods. Although the streamflow for the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers and their tributaries was less during the high groundwater demand period, the hydraulic gradient along a transect of recorder wells was identical (0.0012 foot per foot) during the high and low groundwater demand synoptic water-level and streamflow surveys. The hydraulic gradient between the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers generally remained between 0.0011 and 0.0012 foot per foot. It can be inferred that the hydraulic gradient, which is the only temporally variable factor in Darcy’s Law, is consistent throughout the study period and that groundwater flow does not vary appreciably along this transect.

The northern part of the study area (north of the transect of recorder wells) has consistent groundwater and tributary flow from Big Slough, Rawhide Creek (Old Channel), and Rawhide Creek for low and high groundwater demand periods. In the southern part of the study area (south of the transect of recorder wells), tributary flow is more variable and dependent on local groundwater demand and flow conditions of the Platte River. Small decreases (less than 2 feet) in the groundwater levels, such as those measured during the high groundwater demand period, can have substantial changes in the streamflow in an unnamed tributary to the Elkhorn River. The streamflow measured during the high groundwater demand synoptic water-level and streamflow survey had decreased by nearly a factor of 20 when compared to the low groundwater demand period.

The volume of groundwater discharge received by the Elkhorn River was estimated by examining the changes in streamflow between measurement locations. Streamflow measurements indicate that the groundwater discharge received by the Elkhorn River in the southern part of the study area was seasonably variable, making it difficult if not impossible to estimate an annual value. In the Elkhorn River, between the Elkhorn River at Waterloo, Nebr., streamflow-gaging station and the Q Street Bridge, streamflow measurements collected during the low groundwater demand period indicated a gain of 80 cubic feet per second, which is comparable to the gain estimated using aerial thermal infrared imagery and water temperature data. Streamflow measurements collected during the high groundwater demand period indicate a loss of 80 cubic feet per second across this same reach. In assessing water supply conditions in the lower Platte River system, the term “loss” in reference to streamflow in the Elkhorn River should be used with caution. Most likely, flow from the Elkhorn River which is “lost” to the groundwater system will later discharge to surface water closer to the confluence of the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers as underflow. A calibrated groundwater flow model of the study area likely is required to predict the fate of this water and to quantify groundwater discharge during varying hydrologic conditions along this reach.

Aerial thermal infrared imagery indicated that much of the groundwater discharge in the southern part of the study area is focused across a 3-mile reach where the Elkhorn River turns southwest, perpendicular to the regional groundwater flow direction. Points of focused groundwater discharge were not detected with aerial thermal infrared imagery, indicating that groundwater discharge is diffuse rather than concentrated at focused points. Temperature-based streambed flux estimates indicated that strong regional groundwater gradients are not driving groundwater discharge and hyporheic flow is the dominant groundwater/surface-water exchange process.

Suggested Citation

Hobza, C.M., Johnson, M.J., Woodward, P.W., Strauch, K.R., and Schepers, A.R., 2019, Groundwater movement and interaction with surface water near the confluence of the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers, Nebraska, 2016–18: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2019–5048, 38 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20195048.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

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Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Approach and Methods
  • Groundwater Movement and Interaction with Surface Water near the Confluence of the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers
  • Summary
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Groundwater movement and interaction with surface water near the confluence of the Platte and Elkhorn rivers, Nebraska, 2016–18
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2019-5048
DOI 10.3133/sir20195048
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Nebraska Water Science Center
Description Report: vi, 38 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State Nebraska
Online Only (Y/N) Y