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Professional Paper 1711

Prepared in cooperation with U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Environmental Management, National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Site Office, under Interagency Agreement DE–AI52–01NV13944,
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, under Interagency Agreement DE–AI28–02RW12167, and
Department of the Interior, National Park Service

Death Valley Regional Groundwater Flow System, Nevada and California—Hydrogeologic Framework and Transient Groundwater Flow Model

Edited by Wayne R. Belcher and Donald S. Sweetkind

This publication supersedes Belcher, W.R., ed., 2004, Death Valley regional ground-water flow system, Nevada and California -- hydrogeologic framework and transient ground-water flow model: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report: 2004-5205, 408 p. (Also available at


Thumbnail of publication and link to report Front Matter (5 MB)

A numerical three-dimensional (3D) transient groundwater flow model of the Death Valley region was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey for the U.S. Department of Energy programs at the Nevada Test Site and at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Decades of study of aspects of the groundwater flow system and previous less extensive groundwater flow models were incorporated and reevaluated together with new data to provide greater detail for the complex, digital model.

A 3D digital hydrogeologic framework model (HFM) was developed from digital elevation models, geologic maps, borehole information, geologic and hydrogeologic cross sections, and other 3D models to represent the geometry of the hydrogeologic units (HGUs). Structural features, such as faults and fractures, that affect groundwater flow also were added. The HFM represents Precambrian and Paleozoic crystalline and sedimentary rocks, Mesozoic sedimentary rocks, Mesozoic to Cenozoic intrusive rocks, Cenozoic volcanic tuffs and lavas, and late Cenozoic sedimentary deposits of the Death Valley regional groundwater flow system (DVRFS) region in 27 HGUs.

Information from a series of investigations was compiled to conceptualize and quantify hydrologic components of the groundwater flow system within the DVRFS model domain and to provide hydraulic-property and head-observation data used in the calibration of the transient-flow model. These studies reevaluated natural groundwater discharge occurring through evapotranspiration (ET) and spring flow; the history of groundwater pumping from 1913 through 1998; groundwater recharge simulated as net infiltration; model boundary inflows and outflows based on regional hydraulic gradients and water budgets of surrounding areas; hydraulic conductivity and its relation to depth; and water levels appropriate for regional simulation of prepumped and pumped conditions within the DVRFS model domain. Simulation results appropriate for the regional extent and scale of the model were provided by acquiring additional data, by reevaluating existing data using current technology and concepts, and by refining earlier interpretations to reflect the current understanding of the regional groundwater flow system.

Groundwater flow in the Death Valley region is composed of several interconnected, complex groundwater flow systems. Groundwater flow occurs in three subregions in relatively shallow and localized flow paths that are superimposed on deeper, regional flow paths. Regional groundwater flow is predominantly through a thick Paleozoic carbonate rock sequence affected by complex geologic structures from regional faulting and fracturing that can enhance or impede flow. Spring flow and ET are the dominant natural groundwater discharge processes. Groundwater also is withdrawn for agricultural, commercial, and domestic uses.

Groundwater flow in the DVRFS was simulated using MODFLOW-2000, the U.S. Geological Survey 3D finitedifference modular groundwater flow modeling code that incorporates a nonlinear least-squares regression technique to estimate aquifer parameters. The DVRFS model has 16 layers of defined thickness, a finite-difference grid consisting of 194 rows and 160 columns, and uniform cells 1,500 meters (m) on each side.

Prepumping conditions (before 1913) were used as the initial conditions for the transient-state calibration. The model uses annual stress periods with discrete recharge and discharge components. Recharge occurs mostly from infiltration of precipitation and runoff on high mountain ranges and from a small amount of underflow from adjacent basins. Discharge occurs primarily through ET and spring discharge (both simulated as drains) and water withdrawal by pumping and, to a lesser amount, by underflow to adjacent basins simulated by constant-head boundaries. All parameter values estimated by the regression are reasonable and within the range of expected values. The simulated hydraulic heads of the final calibrated transient model generally fit observed heads reasonably well (residuals with absolute values less than 10 meters) with two exceptions: in most areas of nearly flat hydraulic gradient the fit is considered moderate (residuals with absolute values of 10 to 20 meters), and in areas of steep hydraulic gradient along the Eleana Range and western part of Yucca Flat, southern part of the Owlshead Mountains, southern part of the Bullfrog Hills, and the north-northwestern part of the model domain (residuals with absolute values greater than 20 meters). Groundwater discharge residuals are fairly random, with as many areas where simulated flows are less than observed flows as areas where simulated flows are greater. The highest unweighted groundwater discharge residuals occur at Death Valley, Sarcobatus Flat (northeastern area), Tecopa, and early observations at Manse Spring in Pahrump Valley. High weighted-discharge residuals were computed in Indian Springs Valley and parts of Death Valley. Most of these inaccuracies in head and discharge can be attributed to insufficient representation of the hydrogeology in the HFM and(or) discharge estimates, misrepresentation of water levels, and(or) model error associated with grid-cell size.

The model represents the large and complex groundwater flow system of the Death Valley region at a greater degree of refinement and accuracy than has been possible previously. The representation of detail provided by the 3D digital hydrogeologic framework model and the numerical groundwater flow model enabled greater spatial accuracy in every model parameter. The lithostratigraphy and structural effects of the hydrogeologic framework; recharge estimates from simulated net infiltration; discharge estimates from ET, spring flow, and pumping; and boundary inflow and outflow estimates all were reevaluated, some additional data were collected, and accuracy was improved. Uncertainty in the results of the flow model simulations can be reduced by improving on the quality, interpretation, and representation of the water-level and discharge observations used to calibrate the model and improving on the representation of the HGU geometries, the spatial variability of HGU material properties, the flow model physical framework, and the hydrologic conditions.

First posted August 23, 2010

  • Plate 1 PDF (9.5 MB)
    Map showing regional potential for interbasin flow of groundwater in the Death Valley regional groundwater flow system area, Nevada and California.
  • Plate 2 PDF (17.5 MB)
    Map showing simulated groundwater response to pumping in the Death Valley regional groundwater flow system area, Nevada and California.

For additional information contact:

USGS Nevada Water Science Center, Henderson Office
160 N. Stephanie Street
Henderson, NV 89074

Part or all of this report is presented in Portable Document Format (PDF); the latest version of Adobe Reader or similar software is required to view it. Download the latest version of Adobe Reader, free of charge.

Suggested citation:

Belcher, W.R., and Sweetkind, D.S., eds., 2010, Death Valley regional groundwater flow system, Nevada and California—Hydrogeologic framework and transient groundwater flow model: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1711, 398 p.




Chapter A. Introduction

By Wayne R. Belcher, Frank A. D’Agnese, and Grady M. O’Brien

Chapter B. Geology and Hydrogeology

By Donald S. Sweetkind, Wayne R. Belcher, Claudia C. Faunt, and Christopher J. Potter

Chapter C. Hydrologic Components for Model Development

By Carma A. San Juan, Wayne R. Belcher, Randell J. Laczniak, and Heather M. Putnam

Chapter D. Hydrology

By Claudia C. Faunt, Frank A. D’Agnese, and Grady M. O’Brien

Chapter E. Three-Dimensional Hydrogeologic Framework Model

By Claudia C. Faunt, Donald S. Sweetkind, and Wayne R. Belcher

Chapter F. Transient Numerical Model

By Claudia C. Faunt, Joan B. Blainey, Mary C. Hill, Frank A. D’Agnese, and Grady M. O’Brien

Appendix 1. Regional Potential for Interbasin Flow of Groundwater

By M.S. Bedinger and J.R. Harrill

Appendix 2. Estimated Model Boundary Flows

By J.R. Harrill and M.S. Bedinger

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