US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Prepared in cooperation with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, and the Upper Elkhorn, Lower Elkhorn, Upper Loup, Lower Loup, Middle Niobrara, Lower Niobrara, Lewis and Clark, and Lower Platte North Natural Resources Districts

Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5143

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey


Irrigated agriculture is vital to the livelihood of com¬munities in the Elkhorn and Loup River Basins in Nebraska, and ground water is used to irrigate most of the cropland. Concerns about the sustainability of ground-water and surface-water resources have prompted State and regional agencies to evaluate the cumulative effects of ground-water irrigation in this area. To facilitate understanding of the effects of ground-water irrigation, a numerical computer model was devel¬oped to simulate ground-water flow and assess the effects of ground-water irrigation (including ground-water withdrawals, hereinafter referred to as pumpage, and enhanced recharge) on stream base flow.
The study area covers approximately 30,800 square miles, and includes the Elkhorn River Basin upstream from Norfolk, Nebraska, and the Loup River Basin upstream from Columbus, Nebraska. The water-table aquifer consists of Quaternary-age sands and gravels and Tertiary-age silts, sands, and gravels. The simulation was constructed using one layer with 2-mile by 2-mile cell size.
Simulations were constructed to represent the ground-water system before 1940 and from 1940 through 2005, and to simulate hypothetical conditions from 2006 through 2045 or 2055. The first simulation represents steady-state conditions of the system before anthropogenic effects, and then simulates the effects of early surface-water development activities and recharge of water leaking from canals during 1895 to 1940. The first simulation ends at 1940 because before that time, very little pumpage for irrigation occurred, but after that time it became increasingly commonplace. The pre-1940 simulation was calibrated against measured water levels and estimated long-term base flow, and the 1940 through 2005 simulation was calibrated against measured water-level changes and estiated long-term base flow. The calibrated 1940 through 2005 simulation was used as the basis for analyzing hypothetical scenarios to evaluate the effects of ground-water irrigation on stream base flow for 1940 through 2005 and for 2006 through 2045. Simulated base flows were compared for scenarios that alternately did or did not include a representation of the effects of ground-water irrigation. The difference between simulated base flows for the two scenarios represents the predicted effects of ground-water irrigation on base flow.