Modeling Flow and Water Quality in Reservoir and River Reaches of the Mahoning River Basin, Ohio

Scientific Investigations Report 2022-5125
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
By: , and 


Executive Summary

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is considering changes to the management of water surface elevation in four lakes in the Mahoning River Basin. These changes would affect the timing and amounts of water released to the Mahoning River and could affect the water quality of those releases. To provide information on possible water-quality effects from these operational changes, flow and water-quality models were constructed for Berlin Lake, Lake Milton, Michael J Kirwan Reservoir, Mosquito Creek Lake, Mosquito Creek, and the Mahoning River from the dams downstream to Lowellville, Ohio.

The models were calibrated for two calendar years each, with model years selected depending on the availability of water-quality data. Models were developed with CE-QUAL-W2 version 4.2 (Wells, S.A., 2020, CE-QUAL-W2—A two-dimensional, laterally averaged, hydrodynamic and water quality model [version 4.2]: Portland State University, variously paged), a two-dimensional, laterally averaged hydrodynamic and water-quality model. Modeled constituents included flow, velocity, ice cover, water temperature, total dissolved solids (TDS), sulfate, chloride, inorganic suspended sediment, nitrate, ammonia, total Kjeldahl nitrogen, orthophosphate, total phosphorus, dissolved and particulate organic matter, algae, and dissolved oxygen. Iron was included for the lake models, but not the river.

A whole-basin model, with the four lake models and river model, was used to run model scenarios to examine the effects of altered lake water surface elevations on flow and water quality in the lakes, the lake outflows, and the Mahoning River. The initial whole-basin model, with calendar year 2013 hydrology and measured or typical water quality, was designated as scenario 0. Mahoning River flows for calendar year 2013 were close to a 20-year median flow. Four additional scenarios were constructed based on reservoir operations model (RES-SIM) model water surface elevations for the four lakes as provided by USACE. Scenario 1 was the RES-SIM base case, scenario 2 kept Berlin Lake water surface elevations higher in summer, scenario 3 allowed 25 percent of summer flood storage to extend the guide curve, and scenario 4 allowed more flexibility in lake management by removing any downstream Mahoning River minimum flow requirements. The Mahoning River model was not changed in any scenarios but received altered flows from the lakes. Significant findings from this study include the following:

  • In two of the four lakes (Berlin and Mosquito Creek Lakes), development of lake model grids using recent bathymetric surveys suggests that sedimentation in these lakes has occurred since they were constructed, altering volume-elevation curves.
  • Tests of model parameter sensitivity showed that modeled water temperature, TDS, and dissolved oxygen were relatively insensitive to model parameter values. Modeled chlorophyll a, a measure of algal concentration, was most sensitive to parameter values; nitrate and total phosphorus concentrations were affected by a few of the parameters tested. As a group, the lake model results were more sensitive to model parameter values compared to the Mahoning River model.
  • Data gaps were identified for inflows, both for water quantity and water quality, that could be filled through future sampling programs. Ample data were available from within the waterbodies for model calibration.
  • The model simulated the general spatial and temporal patterns of water temperature, TDS, chloride, sulfate, nutrients, suspended sediment, organic matter, chlorophyll a, and dissolved oxygen in the lakes and Mahoning River.
  • From late spring to autumn in the years modeled (2006, 2013, 2017–19 depending on the lake), all lakes developed thermal stratification and periods of anoxia in bottom waters. Stratification was most stable in Michael J Kirwan Reservoir and least stable in Mosquito Creek Lake. The stratification and anoxia in Berlin Lake, Lake Milton, and Mosquito Creek Lake could be interrupted by high-flow inputs moving through those lakes.
  • The model predicted the release of ammonia and iron during anoxic periods in the lake hypolimnions.
  • Concentrations of TDS, nitrate, orthophosphate, and total phosphorus increased in the Mahoning River down to Lowellville, the end of the river model, in the years modeled. These concentrations were greater than those in upstream lake releases.
  • Chloride and sulfate concentrations were underpredicted in the Mahoning River, suggesting the presence of unreported chloride and sulfate inputs to the river, at least in the years modeled.
  • Model scenario 4 kept water surface elevations the highest in all lakes in the April to mid-December period, compared to scenarios 1–3. Model scenario 2 kept water surface elevations in Berlin Lake higher in summer and late autumn, compared to scenarios 1 and 3, but to satisfy downstream minimum flow requirements, water surface elevations in the other lakes had periods of lower water surface elevation.
  • As a group, scenarios 1–3 had largely similar effects on flow and water surface elevation in the Mahoning River because the lake releases in those scenarios still met downstream Mahoning River flow targets.
  • Modeling the removal of downstream flow targets, scenario 4 had periods of lower flow in the Mahoning River from April to mid-September as water was held in the lakes, and periods of higher Mahoning River flow from mid-September through November as the lakes were drawn down to prepare for winter flood-risk management.
  • In the four scenarios, all the lakes and lake outflows had generally similar seasonal cycles of water quality, though some differences were predicted. For instance, higher concentrations of iron and ammonia in the Lake Milton hypolimnion were modeled during a period of both low inflows from Berlin Lake and low outflows at Lake Milton dam. It is possible that those changes could be minimized by maintaining more flow or pulses of higher flow through the lake.
  • Compared to the scenario 1 base case, changes to Mahoning River water quality were relatively minor for scenarios 2 and 3, which maintained downstream flows but shifted the flow source among the upstream lakes.
  • The largest changes in Mahoning River water quality were predicted between Leavittsburg and Lowellville for scenario 4. The periods of lower lake outflows between April and mid-September led to correspondingly higher concentrations of TDS, orthophosphate, total phosphorus, and nitrate in the river, compared to the base case scenario 1. Conversely, the overall greater lake outflows from mid-September through November in scenario 4 led to periods of lower concentrations of TDS and nutrients in that portion of the river, at that time of year.

Suggested Citation

Sullivan, A.B., Georgetson, G.M., Urbanczyk, C.E., Gordon, G.W., Wherry, S.A., and Long, W.B., 2023, Modeling flow and water quality in reservoir and river reaches of the Mahoning River Basin, Ohio: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2022–5125, 101 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Methods and Data
  • Model Development
  • Model Water Quality
  • Model Application
  • Summary
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Modeling flow and water quality in reservoir and river reaches of the Mahoning River Basin, Ohio
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2022-5125
DOI 10.3133/sir20225125
Year Published 2023
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Oregon Water Science Center
Description Report: xi, 101 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State Ohio
Other Geospatial Mahoning River Basin
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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