The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Upper Elkhorn, Lower Elkhorn, Upper Loup, Lower Loup, Middle Niobrara, Lower Niobrara, Lewis and Clark, and Lower Platte North Natural Resources Districts, used the Soil and Water Assessment Tool to simulate streamflow and estimate percolation in north-central Nebraska to aid development of long-term strategies for management of hydrologically connected ground and surface water. Although groundwater models adequately simulate subsurface hydrologic processes, they often are not designed to simulate the hydrologically complex processes occurring at or near the land surface. The use of watershed models such as the Soil and Water Assessment Tool, which are designed specifically to simulate surface and near-subsurface processes, can provide helpful insight into the effects of surface-water hydrology on the groundwater system. The Soil and Water Assessment Tool was calibrated for five stream basins in the Elkhorn-Loup Groundwater Model study area in north-central Nebraska to obtain spatially variable estimates of percolation.
Six watershed models were calibrated to recorded streamflow in each subbasin by modifying the adjustment parameters. The calibrated parameter sets were then used to simulate a validation period; the validation period was half of the total streamflow period of record with a minimum requirement of 10 years. If the statistical and water-balance results for the validation period were similar to those for the calibration period, a model was considered satisfactory. Statistical measures of each watershed model's performance were variable. These objective measures included the Nash-Sutcliffe measure of efficiency, the ratio of the root-mean-square error to the standard deviation of the measured data, and an estimate of bias. The model met performance criteria for the bias statistic, but failed to meet statistical adequacy criteria for the other two performance measures when evaluated at a monthly time step. A primary cause of the poor model validation results was the inability of the model to reproduce the sustained base flow and streamflow response to precipitation that was observed in the Sand Hills region.
The watershed models also were evaluated based on how well they conformed to the annual mass balance (precipitation equals the sum of evapotranspiration, streamflow/runoff, and deep percolation). The model was able to adequately simulate annual values of evapotranspiration, runoff, and precipitation in comparison to reported values, which indicates the model may provide reasonable estimates of annual percolation. Mean annual percolation estimated by the model as basin averages varied within the study area from a maximum of 12.9 inches in the Loup River Basin to a minimum of 1.5 inches in the Shell Creek Basin. Percolation also varied within the studied basins; basin headwaters tended to have greater percolation rates than downstream areas. This variance in percolation rates was mainly was because of the predominance of sandy, highly permeable soils in the upstream areas of the modeled basins.