Groundwater-flow and land-subsidence model of Antelope Valley, California

Scientific Investigations Report 2014-5166
Prepared in cooperation with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, Palmdale Water District, and Edwards Air Force Base
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Antelope Valley, California, is a topographically closed basin in the western part of the Mojave Desert, about 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The Antelope Valley groundwater basin is about 940 square miles and is separated from the northern part of Antelope Valley by faults and low-lying hills. Prior to 1972, groundwater provided more than 90 percent of the total water supply in the valley; since 1972, it has provided between 50 and 90 percent. Most groundwater pumping in the valley occurs in the Antelope Valley groundwater basin, which includes the rapidly growing cities of Lancaster and Palmdale. Groundwater-level declines of more than 270 feet in some parts of the groundwater basin have resulted in an increase in pumping lifts, reduced well efficiency, and land subsidence of more than 6 feet in some areas. Future urban growth and limits on the supply of imported water may increase reliance on groundwater.


In 2011, the Los Angeles County Superior Court of California ruled that the Antelope Valley groundwater basin is in overdraft—groundwater extractions are in excess of the Court-defined safe yield of the groundwater basin. The Court determined that the safe yield of the adjudicated area of the basin was 110,000 acre-feet per year (acre-ft/yr). Natural recharge is an important component of total groundwater recharge in Antelope Valley; however, the exact quantity and distribution of natural recharge, primarily in the form of mountain-front recharge, is uncertain, with total estimates ranging from 30,000 to 160,000 acre-ft/yr. Technical experts, retained by parties to the adjudication, used 60,000 acre-ft/yr to estimate the sustainable yield of the basin, and this value was used in this study. In order to better understand the uncertainty associated with natural recharge and to provide a tool to aid in groundwater management, a numerical model of groundwater flow and land subsidence in the Antelope Valley groundwater basin was developed using old and new geohydrologic information.


The groundwater-flow system consists of three aquifers: the upper, middle, and lower aquifers. The three aquifers, which were identified on the basis of the hydrologic properties, age, and depth of the unconsolidated deposits, consist of gravel, sand, silt, and clay alluvial deposits and clay and silty clay lacustrine deposits. Prior to groundwater development in the valley, recharge was primarily the infiltration of runoff from the surrounding mountains. Groundwater flowed from the recharge areas to discharge areas around the playas where it discharged from the aquifer system as either evapotranspiration or from springs. Partial barriers to horizontal groundwater flow, such as faults, have been identified in the groundwater basin. Water-level declines owing to groundwater development have eliminated the natural sources of discharge, and pumping for agricultural and urban uses have become the primary source of discharge from the groundwater system. Infiltration of return flow from agricultural irrigation has become an important source of recharge to the aquifer system.


The groundwater-flow model of the basin was discretized horizontally into a grid of 130 rows and 118 columns of square cells 1 kilometer (0.621 mile) on a side, and vertically into four layers representing the upper (two layers), middle (one layer), and lower (one layer) aquifers. Faults that were thought to act as horizontal-flow barriers were simulated in the model. The model was calibrated to simulate steady-state conditions, represented by 1915 water levels and transient-state conditions during 1915–95, by using water-level and subsidence data. Initial estimates of the aquifer-system properties and stresses were obtained from a previously published numerical model of the Antelope Valley groundwater basin; estimates also were obtained from recently collected hydrologic data and from results of simulations of groundwater-flow and land-subsidence models of the Edwards Air Force Base area. Some of these initial estimates were modified during model calibration. Groundwater pumpage for agriculture was estimated on the basis of irrigated crop acreage and crop consumptive-use data. Pumpage for public supply, which is metered, was compiled and entered into a database used for this study. Estimated annual agricultural pumpage peaked at 395,000 acre-feet (acre-ft) in 1951 and then declined because of declining agricultural production. Recharge from irrigation return flows was assumed to be 30 percent of agricultural pumpage; delays associated with return flow moving through the unsaturated zone were also simulated. The annual quantity of mountain-front recharge initially was based on estimates from previous studies. The model was calibrated using the PEST software suite; prior information from the area was incorporated through the use of Tikhonov regularization. During model calibration, the estimated mountain-front recharge was reduced from the previous estimate of 30,300 acre-ft/yr to 29,150 acre-ft/yr.


Results of the simulations using the calibrated model indicate that simulated groundwater pumpage exceeded recharge in most years, resulting in an estimated cumulative depletion in groundwater storage of 8,700,000 acre-ft during the transient-simulation period (1915–2005). About 15,000,000 acre-ft of cumulative groundwater pumpage was simulated during the transient-simulation period (1915–2005), reaching a maximum rate of about 400,000 acre-ft/yr in 1951. Groundwater pumpage resulted in simulated hydraulic heads declining by more than 150 feet (ft) compared to 1915 conditions in agricultural areas. The decline in hydraulic head in the groundwater basin is the result of this depletion of groundwater storage. In turn, the simulated decline in hydraulic head in the groundwater basin has resulted in the decrease in natural discharge from the basin and has caused compaction of aquitards, resulting in land subsidence. The areal distribution of total simulated land subsidence for 2005, after about 90 years of groundwater development, indicates that land subsidence occurred throughout almost the entire Lancaster subbasin, with a maximum of about 9.4 ft in the central and eastern parts of the subbasin.


An important objective of this study was to systematically address the uncertainty in estimates of natural recharge and related aquifer parameters by using the groundwater-flow and land-subsidence model with observational data and expert knowledge. After the model was calibrated to the observations and a reasonable parameter set obtained, the parameter null space—parameter values that do not appreciably affect the model calibration but may have importance for prediction—was identified. The effect of parameter uncertainty on the estimation of mountain-front recharge was addressed using the Null-Space Monte Carlo method. The Pareto trade-off method of visualizing uncertainty was also used to portray the reasonableness of larger natural-recharge rates. Results indicate that the total mountain-front recharge likely ranges between 28,000 and 44,000 acre-ft/yr, which is appreciably less than published estimates of 60,000 acre-ft/yr. Additionally, expected errors associated with agricultural pumpage estimates used in this study were found to have relatively little effect on the estimates of mountain-front recharge, reflecting the difficulty in increasing recharge through manipulation of other components of the water budget.


The calibrated model was used to simulate the response of the aquifer to potential future pumping scenarios: (1) no change in the distribution of pumpage, or status quo; (2) redistribution of pumpage; and (3) artificial recharge. All three of these scenarios specify a total pumpage throughout the Antelope Valley of 110,000 acre-ft/yr according to the safe yield value ruled by the Los Angeles County Superior Court of California. This reduction in groundwater pumpage is assumed uniform throughout the basin, based on a 10-percent reduction of the total pumpage in 2005 to achieve the 110,000 acre-ft/yr level. The calibrated Antelope Valley groundwater-flow and land-subsidence model was used to simulate the hydrologic effects of the three groundwater-management scenarios during a 50-year period by using the reduced, temporally constant, pumpage distribution.


Results from the first scenario indicated that the total drawdown observed since predevelopment would continue, with values exceeding 325 ft near Palmdale; consequently, land subsidence would also continue, with additional subsidence (since 2005) exceeding 3 ft in the central part of the Lancaster subbasin. The second scenario evaluated redistributing pumpage from areas in the Lancaster subbasin where simulated hydraulic-head declines were the greatest to areas where declines were smallest. Neither a formal optimization algorithm nor water-rights allocations were considered when redistributing the pumpage. Results indicated that hydraulic heads near Palmdale, where the pumpage was reduced, would recover by about 200 ft compared to 2005 conditions, with only 30 ft of additional drawdown in the northwestern part of the Lancaster subbasin, where the pumpage was increased. The magnitude of the simulated additional land subsidence decreased slightly compared to the first, status quo, scenario but land subsidence continued to be simulated throughout most of the northern part of the Lancaster subbasin. The third scenario consisted of two artificial-recharge simulations along the Upper Amargosa Creek channel and at a site located north of Antelope Buttes. Results indicate that applying artificial recharge at these sites would yield continued drawdowns and associated land subsidence. However, the magnitudes of drawdown and subsidence would be smaller than those simulated in the status quo scenario, indicating that artificial-recharge operations in the Antelope Valley could be expected to reduce the magnitude and extent of continued water-level declines and associated land subsidence.

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Groundwater-flow and land-subsidence model of Antelope Valley, California
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2014-5166
DOI 10.3133/sir20145166
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center
Description Report: xiv, 138 p.; 5 Appendix Tables
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial Antelope Valley
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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