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Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5069

Prepared in cooperation with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe

Conceptual and Numerical Models of Groundwater Flow in the Ogallala Aquifer in Gregory and Tripp Counties, South Dakota, Water Years 1985–2009

By Kyle W. Davis and Larry D. Putnam

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (15.5 MB)Abstract

The Ogallala aquifer is an important water resource for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in Gregory and Tripp Counties in south-central South Dakota and is used for irrigation, public supply, domestic, and stock water supplies. To better understand groundwater flow in the Ogallala aquifer, conceptual and numerical models of groundwater flow were developed for the aquifer. A conceptual model of the Ogallala aquifer was used to analyze groundwater flow and develop a numerical model to simulate groundwater flow in the aquifer. The MODFLOW–NWT model was used to simulate transient groundwater conditions for water years 1985–2009. The model was calibrated using statistical parameter estimation techniques. Potential future scenarios were simulated using the input parameters from the calibrated model for simulations of potential future drought and future increased pumping.

Transient simulations were completed with the numerical model. A 200-year transient initialization period was used to establish starting conditions for the subsequent 25-year simulation of water years 1985–2009. The 25-year simulation was discretized into three seasonal stress periods per year and used to simulate transient conditions.

A single-layer model was used to simulate flow and mass balance in the Ogallala aquifer with a grid of 133 rows and 282 columns and a uniform spacing of 500 meters (1,640 feet). Regional inflow and outflow were simulated along the western and southern boundaries using specified-head cells. All other boundaries were simulated using no-flow cells. Recharge to the aquifer occurs through precipitation on the outcrop area.

Model calibration was accomplished using the Parameter Estimation (PEST) program that adjusted individual model input parameters and assessed the difference between estimated and model-simulated values of hydraulic head and base flow. This program was designed to estimate parameter values that are statistically the most likely set of values to result in the smallest differences between simulated and observed values, within a given set of constraints. The potentiometric surface of the aquifer calculated during the 200-year initialization period established initial conditions for the transient simulation. Water levels for 38 observation wells were used to calibrate the 25-year simulation. Simulated hydraulic heads for the transient simulation were within plus or minus 20 feet of observed values for 95 percent of observation wells, and the mean absolute difference was 5.1 feet. Calibrated hydraulic conductivity ranged from 0.9 to 227 feet per day.

The annual recharge rates for the transient simulation (water years 1985–2009) ranged from 0.60 to 6.96 inches, with a mean of 3.68 inches for the Ogallala aquifer. This represents a mean recharge rate of 280.5 ft3/s for the model area. Discharge from the aquifer occurs through evapotranspiration, discharge to streams through river leakage and flow from springs and seeps, and well withdrawals. Water is withdrawn from wells for irrigation, public supply, domestic, and stock uses. Simulated mean discharge rates for water years 1985–2009 were about 185 cubic feet per second (ft3/s) for evapotranspiration, 66.7 ft3/s for discharge to streams, and 5.48 ft3/s for well withdrawals. Simulated annual evapotranspiration rates ranged from about 128 to 254 ft3/s, and outflow to streams ranged from 52.2 to 79.9 ft3/s.

A sensitivity analysis was used to examine the response of the calibrated model to changes in model parameters for horizontal hydraulic conductivity, recharge, evapotranspiration, and spring and riverbed conductance. The model was most sensitive to recharge and maximum potential evapotranspiration and least sensitive to riverbed and spring conductances.

Two potential future scenarios were simulated: a potential drought scenario and a potential increased pumping scenario. To simulate a potential drought scenario, a synthetic drought record was created, the mean of which was equal to 60 percent of the mean estimated recharge rate for the 25-year simulation period. Compared with the results of the calibrated model (non-drought simulation), the simulation representing a potential drought scenario resulted in water-level decreases of as much as 30 feet for the Ogallala aquifer. To simulate the effects of potential future increases in pumping, well withdrawal rates were increased by 50 percent from those estimated for the 25-year simulation period. Compared with the results of the calibrated model, the simulation representing an increased pumping scenario resulted in water-level decreases of as much as 26 feet for the Ogallala aquifer.

Groundwater budgets for the potential future scenario simulations were compared with the transient simulation representing water years 1985–2009. The simulation representing a potential drought scenario resulted in lower aquifer recharge from precipitation and decreased discharge from streams, springs, seeps, and evapotranspiration. The simulation representing a potential increased pumping scenario was similar to results from the transient simulation, with a slight increase in well withdrawals and a slight decrease in discharge from river leakage and evapotranspiration.

This numerical model is suitable as a tool that could be used to better understand the flow system of the Ogallala aquifer, to approximate hydraulic heads in the aquifer, and to estimate discharge to rivers, springs, and seeps in the study area. The model also is useful to help assess the response of the aquifer to additional stresses, including potential drought conditions and increased well withdrawals.

First posted June 28, 2013

For additional information contact:
Director, South Dakota Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
1608 Mt. View Road
Rapid City, SD 57702

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Suggested citation:

Davis, K.W., and Putnam, L.D., 2013, Conceptual and numerical models of groundwater flow in the Ogallala aquifer in Gregory and Tripp Counties, South Dakota, water years 1985–2009: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5069, 82 p.,





Description of Study Area

Conceptual Model

Numerical Model


References Cited

Supplemental Information

Supplement 1. Data Used to Estimate Mean Potentiometric Surface

Supplement 2. Estimates of Transmissivity and Hydraulic Conductivity from Specific Capacity Data

Supplement 3. Analysis of Recharge and Evapotranspiration With a Soil-Water-Balance Method

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