Water Center


Date of this Version



United States Geological Survey, Scientific Investigations Report 2014-5008

doi: 10.3133/sir20145008



United States government work


Uncertainty about the effects of land use and climate on water movement in the unsaturated zone and on groundwater recharge rates can lead to uncertainty in water budgets used for groundwater-flow models. To better understand these effects, a cooperative study between the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Central Platte Natural Resources District (CP NRD) was initiated in 2007 to determine field-based estimates of recharge rates in selected land-use areas of the CP NRD in Nebraska. Measured total water potential and unsaturated-zone profiles of tritium, chloride, nitrate as nitrogen, and bromide, along with groundwater-age dates, were used to evaluate water movement in the unsaturated zone and groundwater recharge rates in the central Platte River study area. Eight study sites represented an east-west precipitation contrast across the study area—four beneath groundwater-irrigated cropland (sites 2, 5, and 6 were irrigated corn and site 7 was irrigated alfalfa/corn rotation), three beneath rangeland (sites 1, 4, and 8), and one beneath nonirrigated cropland, or dryland (site 3).

Measurements of transient vertical gradients in total water potential indicated that periodic wetting fronts reached greater mean maximum depths beneath the irrigated sites than beneath the rangeland sites, in part, because of the presence of greater and constant antecedent moisture. Beneath the rangeland sites, greater temporal variation in antecedent moisture and total water potential existed and was, in part, likely a result of local precipitation and evapotranspiration. Moreover, greater variability was noticed in the total water potential profiles beneath the western sites than the corresponding eastern sites, which was attributed to less mean annual precipitation in the west.

The depth of the peak post-bomb tritium concentration or the interface between the pre-bomb/post-bomb tritium, along with a tritium mass balance, within sampled soil profiles were used to estimate water fluxes in the unsaturated zone at three of the eight study sites: site 2 (irrigated), site 3 (dryland), and site 8 (rangeland). Estimates for recharge were about 68 millimeters per year [(mm/yr), post-bomb peak], 133 to 159 mm/yr (tritium interface), and 137 mm/yr (mass balance) at site 2 (irrigated); about 63 mm/yr (tritium interface) and 12 mm/yr (mass balance) at site 3 (dryland); and about 53 mm/yr (tritium interface) and 10 mm/yr (mass balance) at site 8 (rangeland). Recharge values from the mass balance at site 2 were more than an order of magnitude greater than recharge values at site 3, suggesting irrigation is an important control on water movement through the unsaturated zone. For the remaining five sites, the post-bomb tritium had flushed through the system and recharge was considered modern (within 10 years of sampling).

The chloride mass-balance method was used to determine water fluxes below the root zone (less than 2 meters below land surface) at the rangeland sites: sites 1, 4, and 8. At these rangeland sites, water fluxes ranged from 1.8 to 96 mm/yr at site 1, 1.1 to 9.6 mm/yr at site 4, and 1.1 to 68 mm/yr at site 8, with mean rates of 21, 4.3, and 13 mm/yr, respectively. Site 1 had a greater mean water flux, which was consistent with the greater precipitation in the east than at site 8 in the west. Chloride mass balance was not calculated at the irrigated and dryland sites because of uncertainty about additional sources of chloride.

Concentrations of nitrate as nitrogen in pore water in the unsaturated zone were larger beneath the irrigated and dryland (agricultural) sites compared with the rangeland sites. The larger concentrations at the agricultural sites are consistent with the application of nitrogen fertilizer at the agricultural sites and no substantial accumulation at the rangeland sites. The shape of the nitrate as nitrogen and chloride concentration profiles at site 1 (rangeland) indicate a reasonably larger and more consistent water flux in the UZ than beneath the other two rangeland sites (sites 4 or 8). Excluding site 7, the general shape of the nitrate as nitrogen profiles was similar beneath the agricultural sites and supports the estimates of water movement and recharge rates determined from the tritium and chloride methods.

Movement of bromide through the unsaturated zone indicated greater water fluxes are found beneath irrigated lands than beneath rangeland. Bromide profiles in the unsaturated zone, determined from center of mass and peak displacement methods, document water fluxes ranged from 58 to 394 mm/yr beneath irrigated sites and 9 to 201 mm/yr beneath rangeland sites. Water-flux estimates from the potassium bromide tests at most sites did not represent overall recharge rates because the bromide remained primarily in the root zone.

Apparent groundwater age was used to determine the groundwater residence time at the eight sites and to estimate recharge rates. Groundwater ages in the study area ranged from old water (defined here as groundwater that was recharged more than 50 years ago) to modern (defined here as groundwater that has recharged within the past 10 years). Groundwater ages indicated that the shallow monitoring wells generally had younger residence times, whereas the deeper monitoring wells generally had the older residence times. Groundwater dates from the shallowest monitoring wells were used to determine recharge rates at the water table. These rates generally were similar to recharge rates determined from tritium and chloride mass-balance methods. Groundwater recharge rates generally increased with well depth, and the deeper monitoring wells likely do not represent local recharge conditions but recharge from a regional flow system that receives recharge from distant sources.

Overall, these data generally indicate that water movement within the unsaturated zone primarily is affected by spatial contrasts in mean annual precipitation and by the land use or land cover. The eight unsaturated-zone sites each generated unique, valuable datasets that likely will improve the understanding of water movement and recharge rates in the central Platte River valley.