Water Underground

What is a hydrogeologist?

What is a hydrogeologist?

Hydrogeologists are a diverse group, in part because we come to this discipline from so many different paths.  We come from different academic programs in engineering, geological sciences and environmental sciences.  These differences in backgrounds create a diversity of perspectives, which enriches hydrogeology and allows for dynamic collaborations.  Engineers and geophysicists are known for bringing quantitative skills to hydrogeology, while geologists shine in problems involving stratigraphy, structural geology and embrace uncertainty.  Geochemists and environmental scientists are often stronger in contaminant hydrogeology.  However, each of these backgrounds also have their deficiencies.  This is underscored by looking at programs in civil engineering and geology, which are two of the most common undergraduate degrees among hydrogeologists. Aside from foundational math and science courses the first years of these programs, they usually only share an elective course in hydrogeology.  A review of hydrogeology courses covered by Gleeson et al. (2012)  showed that aside from a few topics, these courses vary substantially in their content.


Hydrogeologists are often found crossing streams wearing ghost-buster backpacks (or so it seems from here)

This is further complicated by how professionals are licensed in many jurisdictions, which is often based on these academic programs rather than whether someone has the capacity to practice hydrogeology.  Engineers are required to have engineering fundamentals in areas such as statics, dynamics, and engineering design, along with competency is areas such as structural and transportation engineering for civil engineering. Geologists receive professional registration based on core competencies in subjects such as mineralogy, sedimentology, paleontology and structural geology.  Registration for fields more closely aligned with hydrogeology, such as environmental geoscience and geological engineering may consider hydrogeology as a core requirement.  In general, this means that somebody registered as a professional engineer or geoscientist might be a hydrogeologist but they also may have very little knowledge of hydrogeology.  Environmental scientists and similar fields might be better prepared to practice hydrogeology in some instances but professional registration is not as common.

Maybe this involves graduate school?  Many practicing hydrogeologists have advanced degrees.  These programs are often designed to give a broad base in hydrogeology and typically deliver material in:

  • physical hydrogeology
  • chemical/contaminant hydrogeology
  • geochemistry
  • numerical modeling
  • field techniques

Additional material on porous media, geotechnical engineering and hydrology are frequently also covered.  Anyone with a background in these areas is probably a hydrogeologist.  However, there are still some grey areas.  Can someone who doesn’t understand numerical models be a hydrogeologist? What about someone who has never done field work?  Where to draw the line is unclear and may differ substantially based on who is asking the question.  However, if the goal is to promote competent practitioners and researchers in hydrogeology, the traditional paths through engineering and geoscience may be less than ideal.  The requirement of knowledge outside hydrogeology at the expense of core knowledge may be holding us back. On the other hand, a great number of us did not enter university with the goal of becoming a hydrogeologist and maybe we need these more traditional programs as gateways.

What most hydrogeologists working really looks like (from here)

Groundwater and Agriculture: Tapping the Hidden Benefits

By: Sam Zipper, Postdoctoral Fellow, McGill University/University of Victoria

When people think of groundwater in agricultural landscapes, pumping and irrigation are usually the first thing that comes to mind. However, groundwater can have a more subtle but extremely important impact on crop production when we decide to leave it underground:

When there is shallow groundwater beneath an agricultural field, some of the water creeps upwards from the water table, which increases the soil water available in the root zone of crops. This helps areas with shallow groundwater perform better during drought than areas where the water table is deeper, and is known as a ‘groundwater yield subsidy’; however, if soils get too wet, crop roots can’t breathe, which leads to a ‘groundwater yield penalty’:

Figure 1. Diagram showing how shallow groundwater can help or hurt a crop, and how differences in soil texture or weather conditions impact that relationship. Source: Zipper et al. (2015) Water Resources Research

In a recent study, we found that this effect was largest in coarser grained soils, which drain water much more quickly, but the water table had to be very shallow to have a positive effect. Furthermore, as described in the video, the groundwater yield subsidies during dry years were big enough to outweigh the groundwater yield penalties in wet years at the fields in south-central Wisconsin that we were studying. This means that agricultural drainage systems (such as tile drains) which are designed to lower the water table might inadvertently be making crops more vulnerable to drought, even as they improve performance during wet years.

From a broader perspective, this signals that groundwater recharge – which is conventionally thought of as beneficial from a water supply perspective for replenishing depleted aquifers – is not always a good thing:

Figure 2. Impact of groundwater on different ecosystem services. Source: Booth et al. (2016) Ecosystem Services.

Depending on the goal, groundwater can provide an ecosystem service, ecosystem disservice, or both at different times of the year! From a hydrogeology perspective, this means it is important to understand not just how much groundwater recharge is occurring, but how the entire hydrological cycle interacts with ecosystems and the benefits societies derive from them.

Additional videos associated with the project are available on YouTube. These videos were produced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate project.


Booth EG, SC Zipper, CJ Kucharik, SP Loheide II (2016). Is groundwater recharge always serving us well? Water supply provisioning, crop production, and flood attenuation in conflict in the Yahara River Watershed, Wisconsin, USA. Ecosystem Services, 21, Part A:153-165. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoser.2016.08.007

Zipper SC, ME Soylu, EG Booth, SP Loheide II (2015). Untangling the effects of shallow groundwater and soil texture as drivers of subfield-scale yield variability. Water Resources Research 51(8): 6338-6358. DOI: 10.1002/2015WR017522.

How did our planet get its water?

How did our planet get its water?

Post by WaterUnderground contributors Elco Luijendijk and Stefan Peters from  the University of Göttingen, in Germany.

After my first ever scientific presentation, someone in the audience asked a question that caught me off guard: “Where does the groundwater come from?”.  “Ehm, from rainfall”, I answered. The answer seemed obvious at the time. However, we did not realize at the time that this is actually a profound question in hydrogeology, and one that is rarely addressed in hydrology textbooks and courses: “How did our planet get its water?”. To find out how far science has come to answering this question I (EL) joined up with a geochemist and meteorite expert (SP) to write this blog post.

We are lucky to live on a planet of which ~71% of the surface is covered with water, located mostly in rivers, lakes, glaciers and oceans at the surface and as groundwater in the shallow subsurface. Liquid water sustains life on our planet and seems to play a critical role in plate tectonics. And incidentally, it also to gives hydrogeologists something to study. Liquid water is so important in sustaining life, that the search for life on other planets in our solar system or beyond always focuses first on finding planets with liquid water.

Not only do we have abundant liquid water, we seem to have just the right amount. Compared to our direct planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, we are extremely lucky. On the surface of Mars, at present, water mainly occurs as ice, whereas tiny amounts of water vapor are present in the Martian atmosphere. Venus also has minute amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere, but its blazingly hot surface is entirely devoid of water. In contrast to Mars and Venus, some objects in the solar system that are further away actually have too much water. Take for instance Enceladus, a moon of the planet Saturn, at which an icy crust overlies a 10 km deep water ocean. The amount of water on Enceladus is so large that it causes a wobble in the rotation of this moon, which is one of the reasons why this large volume of water was discovered in the first place. Clearly Enceladus is great for ice-skating, but probably not for sustaining land-based life similar to humans.

Figure 1: From left to right, Venus, Earth and Mars. Which one would you like to live on? Source: ESA (link) .

So how did we on Earth get so lucky?

It turns out that this depends on which scientist you ask. There are two theories:
Theory 1: The major building blocks of the Earth contained water from the start. This water then accumulated at the surface of our planet (by “degassing” from the mantle) and formed the oceans and the hydrosphere.
Theory 2: The major building blocks of the Earth were bone dry, and most of the water was delivered by comets and water-rich asteroids some time after most of our planet’s mass had formed by accretion.
So far, scientists do not have reasons to discard either of these theories, but there are two important arguments in favor of water being delivered after most of the planet had already formed:

Earth formed in a hot region of the solar system from which molecules with “low” condensation temperatures such as water had largely been removed before planetary accretion started (Albarède, 2009). Secondly, the ratio of heavy to light water in Earth’s oceans is similar to that of water in some comets and asteroids (Hartogh et al., 2011). Although you may not have noticed this when you last opened your water tap, a very small fraction (0.016 %) of the water on our planet is heavy, because it contains an extra neutron. The similarity in heavy water composition between asteroids and comets and Earth’s oceans does not prove that water on Earth was delivered by comets, but it certainly is consistent with this scenario. To make matters more complicated, however, the recent European space agency mission Rosetta to the water-rich comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko found that it has a very different ratio of heavy to light water than our oceans, which certainly complicates the debate.

Figure 2 Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko losing water (and dust) as it gets closer to the sun. Source: ESA

Interestingly, neither theory can directly explain why our direct planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, are so dry compared to Earth. So is it possible that these planets once were similar to Earth, and contained more water in their early days than that they do now?

Due to the high surface temperatures at Venus, any liquid water near the surface would immediately evaporate and diffuse into the atmosphere of the planet as a gas. We know that due to the lack of a protective magnetic field on Venus, solar winds continuously erode the atmosphere of the planet. If Venus had abundant water in the past, such erosion by solar winds would therefore have effectively stripped water from the planet’s atmosphere. Similar to Venus, Mars also does not have a protective magnetic field, but the temperatures and pressures at the Martian surface are significantly lower than at Venus’ surface, allowing water to be present at the surface as ice. In fact, Mars may have had a denser atmosphere in the past that allowed liquid water to be present at the surface. Nowadays, erosional features such as channels are the dry witnesses that water indeed once occurred as a liquid on the surface of the planet.

Figure 3. Dry channels (in inverted relief) in the Eberswalde delta on Mars as seen by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (link)

As a summary, we have an idea on why our planet was lucky enough to keep large amounts of water compared to Venus and Mars. However, do we know how our planet got its water in the first place? Unfortunately we are still not sure. There is hope though: we keep getting closer to the answer thanks to recent research on the composition of water on our planet and comets and asteroids in the solar system. So stay tuned, there’s a good chance that science will be able to answer this question in the coming years…

Hartogh, P. et al. (2011), Ocean-like water in the Jupiter-family comet 103P/Hartley 2, Nature, 478(7368), 218–220.
Albarède, F. (2009). Volatile accretion history of the terrestrial planets and dynamic implications. Nature, 461(7268), 1227-1233.

Crop kites

Crop kites

Post by WaterUnderground contributor Mikhail Smilovic. Mikhail is a PhD  candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering at McGill University, in Quebec.

Crops use water for photosynthesis, absorbing nutrients, and transpiration, or the plant-equivalent of sweating. A crop may experience water-stress if the soil surrounding the roots is not adequately wet, and this stress will affect the crop differently depending on the crop’s stage of growth. Irrigation is the watering of plants to ultimately avoid such water-stress.

Non-irrigated crops are more vulnerable to intervals of dry and hot weather, and the increasing unpredictability of a changing climate will further complicate other crop management tools, such as choosing different cultivars (the particular variety of crop, some which may deal with certain stresses in an improved way) or changing planting dates.

Irrigated crops do not experience water stress (they may in fact experience water stress under a non-perfect irrigation system, but forgive this for now), but the water is necessarily derived from somewhere else. This somewhere else may also experience water withdrawals from municipalities, industry, and other agriculture. The source of water may be underground, or water from a river, lake, or spring, but a connection between both underground and surface waters shares with us that water removed from a system somewhere will have a response somewhere. This somewhere may very well be an ecosystem. Irrigation may also be costly related to the abstraction, transportation, and on-farm distribution.

Between non-irrigated and irrigated is a curious place where we can increase the resiliency of our agricultural systems to periods of drought and heat with limited irrigation, while allowing crops to experience well-timed water stress. Agricultural productivity or yield is determined as the amount of crop produced per area of land, say 3 tons/hectare for wheat. When water is a limiting factor, we would be sensible to also consider water productivity, that is the ratio of crop yield and water use, or, the amount of crop produced per drop of water. The practices of limited irrigation, also known as supplemental or deficit irrigation, makes an effort to increase this water productivity.

This space in-between non-irrigated and irrigated, however, has been often poorly explored or simplified. Crop kites is a novel tool to determine and quantify the potential agricultural and water productivity associated with different irrigation practices. This is important for regions interested in shifting investments into or away from irrigation, as well as for researchers interested in evaluating limited irrigation practices as initiatives to establish food and water security, both currently and with changing climates.

A first thought might be, if a crop uses three quarters of the water than it would under ideal conditions, does the crop produce three quarters as much as the crop under ideal conditions? In fact, the answer depends very much on when this water is used.

Let us take the example of winter wheat in northern Africa. Winter wheat can be broadly characterized into five different growth stages. We can illustrate water use throughout the season with the following figure:

Water use is represented by the bottom blue colour, and the associated deficit is represented with the upper orange colour – the top line of the shape is the amount of water the crop would use under ideal conditions on the associated day. This example shows a 0, 10, 20, 30, and 40% deficit occurring in stages 1 to 5 respectively, representing a 78% water use across the entire growing season as compared to ideal conditions. Understanding both the amount of water used and when the water was used, we are able to determine the associated yield, for this example, we reach 68% of potential yield.

Now, what if we were to simulate the yield using all reasonable water uses and all reasonable distributions of the timing of this water use? The resulting shape is our crop kite, with each point associated with a water use distributed throughout the growing season in a particular way:


This shape illustrates the incredible range of yields associated with each water use; for example, 80% of potential water use relates to between ~20 and 90% of potential crop yield.

Water distributed through canals are often delivered according to a schedule, and not necessarily related to growth-stage sensitivities or actual weather. From the crop kite we can derive estimates on how the crop yield will be affected by adopting certain irrigation schedules. We elaborate on this with three examples: S1) water use is distributed to optimize yield, S2) the deficit is distributed evenly across all growth stages, S3) water is used preferentially for the earlier growth stages. The resulting crop-water production functions are illustrated in the following figure:


Although the first schedule optimizing for crop yield may be in line with the motivations of the irrigating farmer, it is often an unreasonable assumption for farmers delivered water according to predetermined schedules, but may be appropriate for farmers irrigating with a privately owned well. Evaluating the potential of supplemental irrigation necessitates estimating the ability of farmers to manage both the amount and timing of irrigation applications. Otherwise, non-reasonable assumptions may be used to evaluate and over promise estimates for agricultural production, with the fault not in the practice of limited irrigation, but in the criteria used to evaluate the system.

Crop kites demonstrate the wide range of water use-crop yield relationships, and can be used to evaluate the potential of limited irrigation to shift both food and water security.


Mikhail Smilovic is a PhD candidate at McGill University and the University of Victoria . Mikhail’s work investigates the interplay between foot security, water resources, and energy, and evaluating and integrating initiatives that increase agricultural production while reducing demands on water resources.

Limits to global groundwater use

Limits to global groundwater use

Post by WaterUnderground contributor Inge de Graaf. Inge is a postdoc fellow at Colorado School of Mines, in the USA.

Groundwater is the world’s most important source of freshwater. It supplies 2 billion people with drinking water and is used for irrigation of the largest share of the world’s food supply.

However, in many regions around the world, groundwater reserves are depleting as the resource is being pumped faster than it is being renewed by rain infiltrating through the soil. Additionally, in many cases, we are still clueless about how long we can keep drawing down these water reserves before groundwater depletion will have devastating impacts on environmental and socio-economic systems. Indeed, these devastating effects are already being observed.

The most direct effect of groundwater depletion is the decline in groundwater levels. As a direct impact, groundwater-pumping cost will increase, so too will the cost of well replacement and the cost of deepening wells. One of the indirect consequences of declining water levels is land subsidence, which is the gradual sinking of the surface. In many coastal and delta cities, increased flooding results in damages totaling billions of dollars per year. Next to this, declining groundwater levels lead to a decrease in groundwater discharge to rivers, wetlands, and lakes, resulting in rivers running dry, wetlands that are no longer sustained, and groundwater-dependent ecosystems that are harmed.

Over the past decades, global groundwater demands have more than doubled. These demands will continue to increase due to population growth and climate change.

The increase in demands and the aforementioned negative effects of groundwater depletion raise the urgent question: at what time in future are the limits to global groundwater use reached? This is when and where groundwater levels drop to a level where groundwater becomes unattainable for abstraction, or that groundwater baseflows no longer sustain river discharges.

In my PhD research, I predicted where and when we will reach these limits of groundwater consumption worldwide. I defended my dissertation last year April at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands.

Where and when are the limits reached?

Results show that many large aquifer systems are already highly depleted, especially for intensively irrigated areas in dryer regions of the world, like India, Pakistan, Mid West USA, and Mexico (see Figure 1). New areas experiencing groundwater depletion will develop in the near future, such as Eastern Europe and Africa. Future predictions show that some areas, like the Central Valley, and the High Plains Aquifer, partly recover when more recharge will becomes available. Notwithstanding, environmental groundwater demands will increase as to buffer more irregular streamflow occurrences due to climate change.

Figure 1: Estimated groundwater depletion (1960-2010) in [m], masked for aquifer areas, and zooms for hotspot regions, which are the intensively irrigated regions of the world.

In 2010, about 20% if the world population lived in groundwater depleted regions, where groundwater dropped below the economical exploitable limit. As a rule of thumb: the economic limit is reached when groundwater becomes unattainable for a local farmer, which is approximately when the water level drops to 100 m below the surface. In 2050, 26% to 36% of the world’s population will live in areas where the economic exploitable limit is reached (see Figure 2). Evidently, this persistence and increasing level of groundwater stress will impair local development and generate tension within the global socio-economic system.

Figure 2: First time that groundwater falls below the 100m limit.


Global-scale simulations

To answer my main question, I studied the effects of groundwater abstractions on river low flows and groundwater levels worldwide, as well as which trends in river low flow frequency and groundwater level change can be attributed to groundwater abstractions.

I used a newly developed physically based surface water-groundwater model to simulate i.a. river flows, lateral groundwater flow, and groundwater-surface water interactions at a high resolution (approx. 10×10 km) at the global scale. Total water demands were estimated and account for agricultural, industrial, and domestic demands. I simulated groundwater and surface water abstractions based on the availability of the resource, making the estimate reliable for future projections under climate change and for data-poor regions where we do not know how much groundwater or surface water is abstracted. Next, I developed a global-scale groundwater model. I estimated alluvial aquifer thickness worldwide, as no data at the global scale is available (see Figure 3). Aquifer thickness is one of the parameters you need to estimate groundwater flow and storage.

Figure 3: Estimated alluvial aquifer thickness. White areas are mountain regions, where no aquifers are simulated.

Simulations were done for the recent past and near future (1960-2050) and the results include maps and trends of groundwater heads, groundwater fluctuations, and river discharges.

In conclusion, most of our water reserves are hidden underground and most of our groundwater abstractions rates exceed groundwater renewing rates, leading to depletion. The growing demand and the expected climate change bring our groundwater reserves under mounting pressure. More than two-thirds of all abstracted groundwater is used for food production. Every year the world’s population is growing by 83 million people.

Improving our knowledge about how much water we can use in the near future while avoiding negative environmental and socio-economic impacts is therefore extremely important. A study like this contributes to the knowledge gap and can help guide towards sustainable water use worldwide to overcome potential political water conflicts and reduce potential socio-economic friction, as well as to secure future food production.

Want to read more? Check out the recent AGU press release or if you have more time… read my papers on dynamic water allocation (click here), development of a global groundwater model (click here, or here), or read my PhD thesis (here).


Author Inge de Graaf receiving her PhD degree from her advisor, professor Marc Bierkens (at Utrecht University, Netherlands). Note Tom Gleeson’s bald head in the lower left…

Water Underground has a new home on the EGU Network Blogs

Water Underground has a new home on the EGU Network Blogs

The newest addition to the Network Blogs is a groundwater nerd blog written by a global collective of hydrogeologic researchers for water resource professionals, academics and anyone interested in groundwater, research, teaching and supervision.

Water Underground was started, and is currently led, by Tom Gleeson. It is the first blog to be jointly hosted by the EGU Blogs and the AGU blogosphere.

Why not take a look at some the past posts to get a feel for what is to come on the new EGU/AGU blog? You can read about what stalagmites can teach us about past and present climate and what scientists mean by crustal permeability. The advances in groundwater research also feature on the blog. Posts on supervision and teaching will be of interest to Earth scientists at all stages of their career too.

Posts in the blog are contributed by a collective of hydrology experts and reviewed by one of the frequent contributors to help improve style and clarity. Tom, and the contributing authors, want to foster a lively community via the blog, so discussion as well as comments on posts is encouraged. Not only that, if you have something to share, be sure to contact the editorial team as submissions are always welcome! Simply drop them a line at: waterundergroundblog@gmail.com

Here at EGU we are thrilled to have Water Underground join our diverse community of geoscience bloggers. Please join us in welcoming Water Underground to the Network Blogs!

By Laura Roberts,  EGU Communications  Officer

Socio-hydrogeology: bridging the gap between science and society

Socio-hydrogeology: bridging the gap between science and society

Authored by Viviana Re, Marie Curie Research Fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy

Sustainability, integrated water resources management, climate change, groundwater governance. These are some of the currently trending topics in hydrogeology, as reflected by their widespread use as keywords in recently published literature. Indeed, hydrogeologists are at the forefront of guaranteeing the long-term sustainability of aquifers worldwide. But how can they assure that the outcomes of their investigations are really translated into effective science-based management practices? How can they make sure that their work really reaches water end-users and all those eventually affected by new water quality and quantity control measures?

Possibly the most effective way is to commit themselves to bridging gaps between science and society.

This is the aim of “socio-hydrogeology”, a new approach to groundwater investigations promoting the incorporation of the social dimension into hydrogeological studies willing to provide management practices with better support (Re, 2015).

Socio-hydrogeology proposes the coupling of robust hydrogeological investigations with a more comprehensive assessment of the socio-economic implications of the (ground)water problems in question. In agreement with the general definition of socio-hydrology—the science of people and water (Sivapalan et al. 2011)—socio-hydrogeology aims not only at studying the mutual relations between people and groundwater (i.e. the impact of human activities on the baseline characteristics of an aquifer and the impact of groundwater—its quality, its presence and scarcity—on human well-being and life), but more generally to include social dimensions in hydrogeological investigations. This means ensuring that the results of scientific investigations are not only based on real needs and local knowledge, but are also adequately disseminated to groundwater users .

Hydrogeologists can be leaders in socio-hydrogeology. They can advocate for groundwater management and protection. They can promote bottom-up approaches that embed local know-how into management strategies. As many hydrogeologists spend substantial time in the field, they are generally the first point of contact for well holders, farmers and other groundwater users. They may therefore act as mediators between theory and practice, or between the problem and the (potential) proposed solution to issues of sustainability and pollution. This is why allocating specific time to structured interaction with the relevant stakeholders and water users prior to and during hydrogeological investigations, they can maximize the use of hydrogeological information and outcomes, which are obtained, in the best cases, with the best available technology and tools.


Socio-hydrogeology in practice:  in situ measurements and interviews with farmers (Cap Bon, Tunisia; Viviana Re, 2014)

This newly established field allows hydrogeologists to focus on mutual relations between groundwater and society and to foster both ‘horizontal’ (e.g. between state and non-state actors or across sectors such as agriculture or energy) and ‘vertical’ (between various levels) cooperation. This novel approach presents a standardized baseline method focused around hydrogeologists, which is easy to understand, flexible, not too time-consuming, and offers the chance to implement preliminary public engagement with limited effort.


Discussions about water issues with farmers near Grombalia, Tunisia (Viviana Re, 2014).

In this framework, the Bir Al-Nas (Bottom-up IntegRated Approach for sustainabLe grouNdwater mAnagement in rural areaS*) approach is proposed as an initial attempt to put the concept of socio-hydrogeology into practice through hydrogeological and social analysis, the latter performed by means of a social network analysis and structured interviews with the people involved in the groundwater monitoring network. Bir Al-Nas is currently being tested and implemented in the Grombalia Basin (Tunisia), chosen as representative of the issues shared by most of the coastal aquifers in arid/semi-arid regions (i.e., aquifer pollution and salinization, water overexploitation, saline-water intrusion, and agricultural return flow).

*Research supported by a Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship within the EU 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7-PEOPLE-2012-IOF, project reference 327287).

 –Featured image by Chiara Tringali (2014)

Brackish groundwater resources: is development advisable?

Brackish groundwater resources: is development advisable?

Authored by: Grant Ferguson – Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil & Geological Engineering at the University Saskatchewan

Groundwater makes up a large fraction of the Earth’s freshwater but that represents only a part of groundwater resources. Large volumes of groundwater are saline, with some reaching salinities of over ten times that of seawater. Brackish water is an intriguing part of the spectrum of groundwater resources, sitting just beyond the water quality salinity requirements for potable water. Many water scarce regions are considering the use of brackish groundwater, sometimes as a potable water resource via desalination or for industrial use where quality requirements are less restrictive. Recent studies by International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre and the United States Geological Survey showed that these resources are relatively accessible in many areas around the globe.  For example, significant brackish groundwater is present at less than 500 feet below ground surface throughout most of the Great Plains.


Distribution of saline groundwater resources in the contiguous United States. (image source).

Using brackish water certainly increases the amount of groundwater in storage that is usable, however what remains unclear is how this fits into the construct of groundwater management. Following ideas promoted by John Bredehoeft, pumped groundwater must be balanced by either an increase in recharge, a decrease in discharge or reduction of storage.  Typically, brackish water systems do not receive large amounts of recharge, nor are they well connected to surface water bodies. This suggests that most brackish water developments are mainly supported by withdrawal of water from storage and that the development of brackish water resources at large scales over longer time frames will result in groundwater depletion problems.

Given this possibility, is development of brackish groundwater resources advisable?


Some situations — such as auxiliary water supplies used during times of drought or high demand, and perhaps most notably for some regions, oil and gas development — only demand groundwater supplies for finite duration — for periods of months to a few years.  Both the Province of Alberta and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers have recently promoted such initiatives in oil and gas producing regions in Canada. However, the oil and gas industry has been using brackish and saline water in Canada for several decades.  During the 1970s, a few wells, installed across a small area in Saskatchewan and the Judith River Formation, pumped brackish water at high rates before they had to be abandoned due to excessive water table drawdown.  Other wells in the area have been used more or less continuously for the last few decades to support enhanced oil recovery, where water levels have not dropped to the point that these wells also need to be abandoned.  Simulations suggest that hydraulic heads have decreased by a few meters across distances of several kilometers from these pumping wells, however this regional drawdown has not been well documented (due a lack of monitoring) nor have water levels in the hundreds of wells in the shallow groundwater systems above Judith River Formation declined noticeably.

The great American groundwater road trip: Interstate 80 over the Ogallala Aquifer

The great American groundwater road trip: Interstate 80 over the Ogallala Aquifer


Authored by: Sam Zipper – Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

In late July, my wife and I loaded the dog into the car, cranked up the water-related tunes, and drove over a few million cubic meters of water. No, we haven’t traded in our sedan for an amphibious vehicle – rather, we were driving west, across Nebraska, on the Interstate 80 highway. While this may be a relatively boring road trip by conventional standards, it does provide an opportunity to drive across the famous Ogallala Aquifer, a part of the High Plains Aquifer system.


The wide reaching Ogallala Aquifer 1. The red line shows Interstate 80’s route.

While the geological history of the Ogallala is described in more detail elsewhere; the short version is that sediment, eroded off the Rocky Mountains over many millions of years, filled in ancient river channels, eventually creating the flat plains that characterize much of Nebraska today. Despite the flat landscape, however, the sights you’ll see along I-80 exist in their present form almost entirely due to this vast underground supply of water.



A center-pivot irrigation sprinkler. A common sight over the Ogallala 2.

It’s estimated that upwards of 90% of the water withdrawn from the Ogallala is used for agricultural irrigation. Driving through western Nebraska, 90% seems like an underestimate. Center-pivot systems stretch away from the interstate as far as the eye can see, and it’s hard to imagine what this landscape would look like without the water from the Ogallala. While groundwater levels have declined in the most heavily irrigated parts of Nebraska compared to predevelopment conditions, they’ve fortunately stabilized over the past ~30 years; the most serious drawdowns are occurring further south, in Western Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle.

The Mighty Platte


The mighty Platte River. Photo by Sam Zipper.

The Platte River stretches from the Rockies to its confluence with the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska, and I-80 follows the Platte through most of Nebraska. Along the way, the Platte is receiving water from surrounding groundwater systems.  This process of groundwater discharge to streams (often called baseflow), is particularly important for sustaining flow in the river during dry periods, along with the ecosystems, agriculture, and municipalities that depend on this water supply. For a more beautiful look at the Platte than my cell phone camera offers, check out the Platte Basin Timelapse project, which uses photography to explore the movement of water through the basin.

The Namesake


Ogallala Nature Park welcome sign. Photo by Sam Zipper.

The Ogallala is named after Ogallala, NE, a tiny town about a half hour’s drive from the Colorado border. The aquifer is named after Ogallala because that’s where the geologic “type locality” is – a fancy way of saying, they found the Ogallala formation here first. While we didn’t venture into the town of Ogallala itself, we did stop at the lovely Ogallala Nature Park just off the interstate for a stroll among the phreatophytic vegetation lining the banks of the Platte. Phreatophytes, such as the cottonwoods common to Nebraska, have evolved to have special roots which can extract water directly from groundwater when soil moisture supplies are low, thus allowing them to survive in the sandy, well-drained banks of the Platte.

Do you have any hydrogeologic highlights we should investigate on our drive back to Madison? Let me know via the comments below!

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About the author:

Sam Zipper‘s research interests lie broadly at the intersection of humans and the environment, focusing on feedbacks between subsurface hydrology, vegetation dynamics, soil water retention characteristics, and climate & land use change that cut across the disciplines of hydrology and hydrogeology, soil science, agronomy, and ecology.  He is an ecohydrologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


FloPy: A Python interface for MODFLOW that kicks tail!

FloPy: A Python interface for MODFLOW that kicks tail!

Authored by: Kevin Befus – Assistant professor, Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering at the University of Wyoming

Groundwater modeling is getting better. Models are becoming more sophisticated with simpler interfaces to add, extract, and process the data. So, at first appearances, the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) recent release of a Python module named FloPy for preparing, running, and managing MODFLOW groundwater models seems to be a step backwards.

Oh, but it isn’t.


First, a couple disclaimers. Yes, at the time of writing this I work for the USGS and use this new Python module for my research. Did I have to use FloPy? No. Am I glad I did? YES! Before using FloPy, I dabbled in the various non-commercial MODFLOW interfaces but got bogged down on how many drop down menus, pop-up menus, wizards, and separate plotting programs with their own menus were needed to make a meaningful groundwater model on top of a new lexicon of variable names (IUPWCB must mean “internally unknown parameter with concentrated bacon”, right?).

FloPy made its official debut in February 2016 with a Groundwater methods report 1. Bakker et al. do an excellent job telling us why we should use FloPy. I’ll leave that to you and tell you what I think.

Here’s what is great about FloPy:

  1. FloPy is 100% MODFLOW. No tweaks to anything. You choose the executable file you want it to use or compile it yourself, and you’re off!
  2. You have the near-infinite data management, manipulation, and plotting capabilities of Python at your fingertips. Python has a lot of packages. It can be overwhelming. You can rely commercial packages like ESRI’s arcpy if you want, but there’s a list of free libraries that give you even more freedom to get the input data just right. Since I mentioned freedom, here’s the list of free libraries I find useful but it is in no way an endorsement nor exhaustive: scipy, numpy, gdal, osgeo, fiona, shapely, cartopy, pyshp, pandas, matplotlib, and let’s not forget…flopy!
  3. It’s easy to duplicate and alter an existing model. Once you have your script perfect for running a particular groundwater model, you can take pieces of it to make a slightly altered version, or you can pop it in a loop that runs through your uncertain inputs for sensitivity testing. Change your grid with the flip of a variable, and make sure that mesh converges!
  4. Loading other MODFLOW models works great. Say you want to run someone else’s model with slightly different recharge, but their recharge is variable in space. Since FloPy incorporates numpy’s grid/matrix handling capabilities, you can change individual entries with row-column selections or change the whole recharge grid by multiplying it by either a single number or say a random matrix with a normal distribution and some added noise. If you just want to use their recharge data to run your own model, you can save the position coordinates (they have hopefully provided you with their coordinate system and model transformations) and recharge arrays to your very favorite format (csv, nc, mat, tif) and load it later as a matrix to add to your model, all in a single Python script.
  5. Building off of the ability to load or create MODFLOW models, FloPy has functions for plotting 2D map or cross-section views of the model discretization, boundary conditions, and results. Shapefiles can be included in these plots if they are in the same coordinate system as the model or extracted from the model (ever want a polygon feature of every model cell with attributes for every property of that cell?). I do my own shapefile manipulations in Python, but FloPy has some great plotting tools built in.
  6. You already have the data in Python. See what adding a low permeability layer does to spring discharge. Then, with the model made, you have to make sense of it. Maybe develop some interesting spatial or time series analyses. Enter Python. Plotting with matplotlib also makes beautiful, journal article-worthy figures…with enough sweat and tears from your end (not as many as you may think). Yes, this is a repeat of 2), but, seriously, it’s in PYTHON!
  7. FloPy is totally free. Python is free. Tons of science-oriented libraries in Python are free.


Here’s a flashy example.  It is straightforward and only takes one script to create a SEAWAT model from scratch and plot the 2D steady state salinity distribution and flow vectors for a simple Henry 2 problem based on a slightly edited FloPy example script.  There are more than a dozen example scripts available on the FloPy site as well as a very cool capture ratio script provided in the methods report 1.

For the groundwater educators out there, a FloPy groundwater model script can be paired with homework questions that get students testing how changing hydraulic conductivity in certain parts of the model changes the water table configuration. Or maybe a new well needs to be drilled on a plot of land near a spring… The scenarios are endless. Students can develop a fundamental understanding of groundwater flow while getting experience with both groundwater modeling and computer programming. Win, win, and win.

Essentially all of the standard MODFLOW packages are operational in FloPy, and there are varying levels of support for some of the specialized MODFLOW compilations and processing tools (e.g., MODFLOW-USG, MODFLOW-NWT, MT3DMS, SEAWAT, PEST, and MODPATH). PEST and MODPATH are currently not executable with FloPy, but these features will probably be added in a future release (I have made my own klugy modules for running ZoneBudget and MODPATH that interface reasonably well with the rest of FloPy).

Get on your way and give FloPy a try today!


The Python package is available online at https://github.com/modflowpy/flopy.

The documentation is available online at http://modflowpy.github.io/flopydoc/index.html.

The USGS FloPy page is http://water.usgs.gov/ogw/flopy/.


Bakker, M., V. Post, C. D. Langevin, J. D. Hughes, J. T. White, J. J. Starn, and M. N. Fienen (2016), Scripting MODFLOW Model Development Using Python and FloPy, Groundwater, doi:10.1111/gwat.12413.

Henry, H.R., 1964. Effects of dispersion on salt encroachment in coastal aquifers. In: Cooper, H.H. (Ed.), Sea Water in Coastal Aquifers: U.S. Geological Survey Water- Supply Paper 1613-C p. C71–C84.

About the author:

Kevin Befus is a groundwater hydrologist with geology and geophysics experience — examining geological, biological, and chemical processes, especially considering their connections to water across scales.



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