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Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5190

Prepared in cooperation with Bureau of Reclamation and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Simulation of the Lower Walker River Basin Hydrologic System, West-Central Nevada, Using PRMS and MODFLOW Models

By Kip K. Allander, Richard G. Niswonger, and Anne E. Jeton

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (10.7 MB)Abstract

Walker Lake is a terminal lake in west-central Nevada with almost all outflow occurring through evaporation. Diversions from Walker River since the early 1900s have contributed to a substantial reduction in flow entering Walker Lake. As a result, the lake is receding, and salt concentrations have increased to a level in which Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi (Lahontan Cutthroat trout) are no longer present, and the lake ecosystem is threatened. Consequently, there is a concerted effort to restore the Walker Lake ecosystem and fishery to a level that is more sustainable. However, Walker Lake is interlinked with the lower Walker River and adjacent groundwater system which makes it difficult to understand the full effect of upstream water-management actions on the overall hydrologic system including the lake level, volume, and dissolved-solids concentrations of Walker Lake. To understand the effects of water-management actions on the lower Walker River Basin hydrologic system, a watershed model and groundwater flow model have been developed by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The watershed model was developed using the precipitation runoff modeling system (PRMS) and the groundwater flow model was constructed using the MODular groundwater FLOW model (MODFLOW) and both were calibrated for the lower Walker River Basin. These models can be incorporated in an integrated Groundwater and Surface-water FLOW (GSFLOW) model of the lower Walker River Basin. Additionally, the MODFLOW model developed for this study is useful for efficiently simulating long-term and large-scale effects of water-management actions on groundwater hydrology, streamflow, and Walker Lake level, volume, and dissolved-solids concentrations.

The lower Walker River Basin PRMS model (LWR_PRMS) was constructed using a subbasin approach to aid in development and calibration, and simulates a 30-year period from 1978 to 2007 using daily time steps. The LWR_PRMS was used to estimate the distribution of groundwater recharge specified in the MODFLOW model. The highest rates of groundwater recharge occur in the Wassuk Range beneath perennial and ephemeral stream channels, whereas lower rates of recharge occur beneath alluvial fans along mountain fronts. The total groundwater recharge estimated using PRMS was about 25,000 acre-feet per year.

The lower Walker River Basin MODFLOW (LWR_MF) model simulates an 89-year period using monthly time steps. The LWR_MF was constructed with an initial steady-state simulation to represent dynamic equilibrium conditions from 1908 to 1918 and then a transient simulation representing the period 1919–2007. The model was calibrated using a combination of manual and automated methods of adjusting model parameters to minimize errors between model simulated results and weighted observations of groundwater levels, streamflows, and lake level. Hydrologic conditions simulated with the LWR_MF include the movement and change in storage of groundwater, and the water budgets for Walker River, Walker Lake, and the groundwater system. The LWR_MF computed dissolved-solids concentrations for Walker Lake using simulated lake volume and an assumed constant internal salt mass of 37.2 million tons.

Effects of potential changes in water management on future conditions (scenarios) of the lower Walker River Basin hydrologic system and Walker Lake from 2011 to 2070 were evaluated. Several water-management scenarios were considered, including a baseline scenario that represents no changes in system management, improved irrigation efficiencies for the Walker River Indian Irrigation Project (WRIIP), a range of increased streamflows entering the lower Walker River Basin, and, the fallowing of fields on the WRIIP.

For the baseline scenario, it was assumed that streamflow conditions from 1981 to 2010 will be repeated in the future. Results indicate that Walker Lake level and volume continue to decline but at a slower rate as the surface area of the lake becomes smaller and lake evaporation decreases. Dissolved-solids concentrations in Walker Lake continue to increase and increase much more rapidly during periods when minimal flows reach the lake due to a diminished lake volume. Alternatively, in years with high runoff, lake level increases are greater and dissolved-solids decreases are greater, compared with equivalent runoffs experienced during 1981–2010.

The simulated effects of improving WRIIP efficiencies on Walker River streamflows, Walker Lake inflow, level, and dissolved-solids concentrations, and crop consumptive use, are compared with the baseline reference scenario for a range of irrigation efficiency improvements from 0 to 25 percent over 60 years. Results indicate that water is conserved through a reduction in irrigation-induced groundwater recharge and subsequent groundwater discharge through evapotranspiration. The conserved water mostly goes to increased streamflow to Walker Lake, followed by increased crop consumptive use, then increased evaporation from Weber Reservoir.

The simulated effects of increased streamflows at Walker River at Wabuska streamgage (10301500) on Walker Lake inflow, level, and dissolved-solids concentrations, and crop consumptive use, are compared with the baseline scenario after 60 years under two different management methods for Weber Reservoir. Results indicate Walker Lake level and dissolved-solids concentrations stabilized with increased irrigation-season streamflow of about 40,000 acre-feet per year at the Walker River at Wabuska streamgage. Walker Lake level increased, and dissolved-solids concentration decreased, with increased flows of 50,000 acre-feet per year or more. After 60 years with additional irrigation-season streamflows of 50,000 acre-feet per year, Walker Lake level increased by about 48 feet, and lake dissolved-solids concentrations decreased by about 3,000 milligrams per liter (mg/L). With 75,000 acre-feet per year of additional streamflow, Walker Lake level increased by 70 feet, and dissolved-solids concentration decreased by 7,600 milligrams per liter.

The effects of fallowing of Walker River Indian Irrigation Project fields from 2007 to 2010 on Walker Lake inflow, level, and dissolved solids were evaluated. Fallowing resulted in a near doubling of Walker River inflow to Walker Lake during this period, an increase in Walker Lake level of about 1.4 feet, and a decrease in dissolved-solids concentration of about 540 mg/L.

First posted November 12, 2014

For additional information, contact:
Director, USGS Nevada Water Science Center
2730 North Deer Run Road
Carson City, Nevada 89701
(775) 887-7600

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Suggested citation:

Allander, K.K., Niswonger, R.G., and Jeton, A.E., 2014, Simulation of the Lower Walker River Basin hydrologic system, west-central Nevada, Using PRMS and MODFLOW models: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2014-5190, 93 p.,

ISSN 2328-0328 (online)




Description of Hydrologic System

Estimates of Groundwater Recharge

Simulation of Runoff and Groundwater Recharge (PRMS Model)

Simulation of Walker River, Walker Lake, and Groundwater Flow (MODFLOW Model)

Response of Lower Walker River Hydrologic System to Changes in Water Management


References Cited

Appendix 1. Water-Level Hydrographs

Appendix 2. Observation-Site Information

Appendix 3. PRMS and MODFLOW Files and Supporting Utilities

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