Water Center


Date of this Version



United States government work


The North Platte Natural Resources District (NPNRD) has been actively collecting data and studying groundwater resources because of concerns about the future availability of the highly inter-connected surface-water and groundwater resources. This report, prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the North Platte Natural Resources District, describes a groundwater-flow model of the North Platte River valley from Bridgeport, Nebraska, extending west to 6 miles into Wyoming. The model was built to improve the understanding of the interaction of surface-water and groundwater resources, and as an optimization tool, the model is able to analyze the effects of water-management options on the simulated stream base flow of the North Platte River. The groundwater system and related sources and sinks of water were simulated using a newton formulation of the U.S. Geological Survey modular three-dimensional groundwater model, referred to as MODFLOW–NWT, which provided an improved ability to solve nonlinear unconfined aquifer simulations with wetting and drying of cells. Using previously published aquifer-base-altitude contours in conjunction with newer test-hole and geophysical data, a new base-of-aquifer altitude map was generated because of the strong effect of the aquifer-base topography on groundwater-flow direction and magnitude. The largest inflow to groundwater is recharge originating from water leaking from canals, which is much larger than recharge originating from infiltration of precipitation. The largest component of groundwater discharge from the study area is to the North Platte River and its tributaries, with smaller amounts of discharge to evapotranspiration and groundwater withdrawals for irrigation. Recharge from infiltration of precipitation was estimated with a daily soil-water-balance model. Annual recharge from canal seepage was estimated using available records from the Bureau of Reclamation and then modified with canal-seepage potentials estimated using geophysical data. Groundwater withdrawals were estimated using land-cover data, precipitation data, and published crop water-use data. For fields irrigated with surface water and groundwater, surface-water deliveries were subtracted from the estimated net irrigation requirement, and groundwater withdrawal was assumed to be equal to any demand unmet by surface water.

The groundwater-flow model was calibrated to measured groundwater levels and stream base flows estimated using the base-flow index method. The model was calibrated through automated adjustments using statistical techniques through parameter estimation using the parameter estimation suite of software (PEST). PEST was used to adjust 273 parameters, grouped as hydraulic conductivity of the aquifer, spatial multipliers to recharge, temporal multipliers to recharge, and two specific recharge parameters. Base flow of the North Platte River at Bridgeport, Nebraska, streamgage near the eastern, downstream end of the model was one of the primary calibration targets. Simulated base flow reasonably matched estimated base flow for this streamgage during 1950–2008, with an average difference of 15 percent. Overall, 1950–2008 simulated base flow followed the trend of the estimated base flow reasonably well, in cases with generally increasing or decreasing base flow from the start of the simulation to the end. Simulated base flow also matched estimated base flow reasonably well for most of the North Platte River tributaries with estimated base flow. Average simulated groundwater budgets during 1989–2008 were nearly three times larger for irrigation seasons than for non-irrigation seasons.

The calibrated groundwater-flow model was used with the Groundwater-Management Process for the 2005 version of the U.S. Geological Survey modular three-dimensional groundwater model, MODFLOW–2005, to provide a tool for the NPNRD to better understand how water-management decisions could affect stream base flows of the North Platte River at Bridgeport, Nebr., streamgage in a future period from 2008 to 2019 under varying climatic conditions. The simulation-optimization model was constructed to analyze the maximum increase in simulated stream base flow that could be obtained with the minimum amount of reductions in groundwater withdrawals for irrigation. A second analysis extended the first to analyze the simulated base-flow benefit of groundwater withdrawals along with application of intentional recharge, that is, water from canals being released into rangeland areas with sandy soils. With optimized groundwater withdrawals and intentional recharge, the maximum simulated stream base flow was 15–23 cubic feet per second (ft3/s) greater than with no management at all, or 10–15 ft3/s larger than with managed groundwater withdrawals only. These results indicate not only the amount that simulated stream base flow can be increased by these management options, but also the locations where the management options provide the most or least benefit to the simulated stream base flow. For the analyses in this report, simulated base flow was best optimized by reductions in groundwater withdrawals north of the North Platte River and in the western half of the area. Intentional recharge sites selected by the optimization had a complex distribution but were more likely to be closer to the North Platte River or its tributaries. Future users of the simulation-optimization model will be able to modify the input files as to type, location, and timing of constraints, decision variables of groundwater withdrawals by zone, and other variables to explore other feasible management scenarios that may yield different increases in simulated future base flow of the North Platte River.