Water Center


Date of this Version



United States Geological Survey, Scientific Investigations Report 2022-5042

doi: 10.3133/sir20225042

Document: https://www.usgs.gov/publications/age-and-water-quality-characteristics-groundwater-discharge-south-loup-river-nebraska


United States government work


Streams in the Loup River Basin are sensitive to groundwater withdrawals because of the close hydrologic connection between groundwater and surface water. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Upper Loup and Lower Loup Natural Resources Districts, and the Nebraska Environmental Trust, studied the age and water-quality characteristics of groundwater near the South Loup River to assess the possible effects of a multiyear drought on streamflow.

Groundwater sampled in wells screened in Quaternary-age deposits displayed a wide range of mean ages (27 to 2,100 years), fraction modern, and susceptibility index values. Groundwater with higher concentrations of chloride and higher specific conductance was indicative of younger groundwater with a narrower age distribution and is more sensitive to climatic disturbances such as short-term drought conditions, based on the calculated susceptibility index. Groundwater samples from wells and springs in Pliocene-age deposits were categorized into two groups with different geochemical and age characteristics. One sample group of springs and wells, called the Western Pliocene, had higher concentrations of chloride and nitrate with young mean ages (18 to 77 years) and narrow age distributions. Groundwater in the Western Pliocene sample group is susceptible to short-term drought. In contrast, the other sample group from Pliocene-age deposits to the east (called Pliocene) had lower concentrations of nitrate, chloride, and mean groundwater ages ranging from 1,900 to 2,900 years old and is less likely to be affected by short-term drought conditions. Groundwater sampled from three wells screened in the Ogallala Formation was shown to have the oldest mean ages ranging from 8,700 to 23,000 years and the lowest calculated susceptibility index values observed in this study. Strong upward hydraulic gradients measured in wells indicated that groundwater from the Ogallala Formation is likely contributing to streamflow of the South Loup River.

Continuously measured gage height and specific conductance data indicated groundwater discharge from Quaternary-age deposits was highly responsive to precipitation events. In contrast, groundwater discharge from Pliocene-age deposits (Pliocene sample group) was far less responsive, indicating groundwater discharge from Pliocene-age deposits is likely more resilient to short-term drought conditions.