USGS study shows that extreme rainstorms are critical for groundwater recharge in the West

‘Without them, groundwater resources become depleted’

Raindrops ... @bberwyn photo.
Raindrops … @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Extreme precipitation events that cause severe flooding, loss of life and property damage aren’t exactly at the top of the weather wish list for most people. But it turns out they play a key role in replenishing underground aquifers in the western U.S.

The importance of groundwater will continue to grow in the years ahead — an era of population growth and climate disruption, so understanding the connection between big storms and groundwater recharge is critical, according to U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Reclamation scientists who have released a new study analyzing large, multi-year, quasi-decadal groundwater recharge events in the northern Utah portion of the Great Basin from 1960 to 2013.

They evaluated groundwater levels and climate information and identified five large recharge events with a frequency of about 11 to 13 years. Findings show these events provide a significant amount of groundwater recharge and storage across the northern Great Basin, causing water levels to rise in aquifers.

“Informed decisions for water management now and in the future rely on understanding the surface and groundwater resources within a river basin,” Reclamation’s Subhrendu Gangopadhyay said. “Understanding historical groundwater recharge provides context to better manage groundwater in the future under a variable climate.”

There has been a considerable amount of research linking climatic variability to hydrologic responses; however, most of these studies focus on surface-water resources. The implications of this work indicate if the magnitude or frequency of these recharge events change there will be significant impacts on groundwater, specifically long-term availability, use and sustainability.

“These large recharge events are vital in replenishing and maintaining groundwater storage, especially after multiple years of below average precipitation across the region,” said USGS scientist and lead author of the study, Melissa Masbruch. “Without them, groundwater resources become depleted.”

Large groundwater recharge events are characterized by above-average annual precipitation and below-average seasonal temperatures, especially during the spring (April through June). Existing groundwater flow models were used to simulate changes in groundwater storage in several basins throughout the study area from these events.

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