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Understanding and Managing the Effects of Groundwater

Pumping on Streamflow

G roundwater is a critical resource

in the United States because it
provides drinking water, irrigates crops,
supports industry, and is a source of water
for rivers, streams, lakes, and springs.
Wells that pump water out of aquifers
can reduce the amount of groundwater
that flows into rivers and streams, which
can have detrimental impacts on aquatic
ecosystems and the availability of surface
water. Estimation of rates, locations, and
timing of streamflow depletion due to
groundwater pumping is needed for water-
resource managers and users throughout
the United States, but the complexity
of groundwater and surface-water
systems and their interactions presents
a major challenge. The understanding
of streamflow depletion and evaluation
of water-management practices have
improved during recent years through
the use of computer models that simulate
aquifer conditions and the effects of
pumping groundwater on streams. The Lower Colorado River and adjacent farmland near Yuma, Arizona. Court rulings on use of water
in the river have recognized that water can be withdrawn from the Colorado River by underground
pumping. (Photograph courtesy of Andy Pernick, Bureau of Reclamation)
Groundwater is an important source
of water for many human needs, including challenging aspects of conjunctively
drinking water, agriculture, and industry. managing groundwater and surface-
Groundwater and surface-water systems water systems. Scientific research and
are connected, and groundwater discharge practical applications of this research to
is often the primary source of streamflow, real-world settings over the past seven
particularly during periods with no rainfall decades have improved the understanding
or snowmelt (fig. 1A). Pumping from of the capture process by hydrologists,
wells reduces the amount of groundwater providing valuable insights to water
that flows to streams and, in some cases, administrators for improving groundwater
can draw streamflow into the underlying and surface-water management. This
aquifer. Streamflow reduction caused by Fact Sheet summarizes some of the basic
pumping, also referred to as depletion information about how groundwater
or capture, has become an important pumping affects streams, misconceptions
water-resource management issue because that have developed around the process
of the negative effects that reduced of streamflow depletion, and methods for
flows can have on aquatic ecosystems, understanding and managing streamflow
the availability of surface water, and the depletion by wells. A more detailed
aesthetic value of streams and rivers. description of these and other issues
Managing the effects of streamflow related to the effects of pumping on A Vermilion Flycatcher in the riparian corridor
depletion by wells is one of the most streams is provided in U.S. Geological of the San Pedro River, Arizona. (Photograph
common and often one of the most Survey Circular 1376. courtesy of Bob Herrmann, copyright 2011.)

U.S. Department of the Interior Fact Sheet 20133001

U.S. Geological Survey January 2013
Sources of Water to a Well at the well and decrease with distance from which water can be captured
from the well. Over time, the cone of commonly streams that are hydraulically
When a well begins to pump water depression deepens and expands outward connected to the aquifer.
from an aquifer, it first pulls water closest from the well. Captured streamflow consists of
to the well from storage within the aquifer, The release of water from aquifer two possible components: groundwater
forming a cone of depression in the storage continues to be the only source that would otherwise have discharged to
water table around the well (fig. 1B). of water to the well until the cone of a stream or river (captured groundwater
These water-level declines are largest depression reaches one or more locations discharge) and streamflow that is drawn
into an aquifer because of pumping
Figure 1. Progressive changes to groundwater flow and streamflow before, during, and after (induced infiltration of streamflow;
pumping at a hypothetical well site. fig. 1C). Streamflow depletion, therefore,
is the sum of captured groundwater
Land surface discharge and induced infiltration.
Water table Captured groundwater discharge is often
the primary component of streamflow
depletion, but if pumping rates are

relatively large or the locations of
A. Under natural conditions,
withdrawal are relatively close to a stream,
recharge at the water table
Unconfined aquifer then induced infiltration may become an
is equal to discharge at the
Confining unit important component of depletion.
Other hydrologic features also
can be affected by pumping wells.
Land surface
Groundwater withdrawals can decrease
Water table
groundwater discharge rates to lakes
and springs and reduce the amount of
B. Pumping from a well water that would otherwise be available

removes water from storage to groundwater-dependent plants in

in a cone of depression and riparian areas.
Unconfined aquifer reduces discharge to the
Confining unit stream. Time Response of Streamflow
Land surface
The timing of streamflow depletion
Water table
C. In some circumstances, from pumping at a particular well is
the pumping rate of the well affected by many factors, includingthe
may be large enough to cause geologic structure, dimensions,

water to flow from the stream and hydraulic properties of the

to the aquifer, a process groundwater system and streambeds,
Unconfined aquifer andimportantlythe distance from
called induced infiltration of
Confining unit the pumping location to the streams
Volume of cone of depression connected to the aquifer. Substantial
Land surface refilled since pumping stopped streamflow depletion by a well that is
Water table tens of feet from a stream may occur in a
matter of days, whereas depletion from a
D. After pumping stops,
well that is tens of miles from the nearest
groundwater levels begin to
stream may occur over decades or even

recover, and water flows into

aquifer storage to refill the
An example of the transition
Unconfined aquifer cone of depression created by
from aquifer storage to streamflow
Confining unit the previous pumping stress.
depletionasa source of pumped water
is illustrated in figure 2. At any given
Land surface time, the sum of aquifer storage change
Water table and streamflow depletion account for
100 percent of the pumping rate of the
well, with a trend toward the condition
E. Eventually, the system

in which all of the pumping rate is from

may return to its prepumping
depletion. The pumping time at which
condition with no additional
Unconfined aquifer 50 percent of the pumping rate is from
changes in aquifer storage or
Confining unit depletion is referred to as the time to
streamflow depletion.
depletion-dominated supply.
Common Misconceptions of streamflow depletion will equal the streamflow depletion, but small effects of
Regarding Streamflow Depletion volume of water pumped. many wells within a basin can combine to
Misconception 4: Pumping produce substantial effects on streamflow
by Wells
groundwater exclusively below a clay layer and aquatic habitats. Moreover, basinwide
Despite the many advances that have or other confining layer will eliminate the groundwater development typically occurs
been made in our understanding of the possibility of depletion of surface water over a period of several decades, and the
processes that affect streamflow depletion connected to the overlying groundwater resulting cumulative effects on streamflow
by wells, several misconceptions related to system. Eventhough clay or other depletion may not be fully realized for
the effects of pumping on streamflow have confining layers canslow the progression many years.
developed over the years. These include of depletion in comparison to equivalent Although monitoring of streamflow
the following: aquifer systems without confining layers, depletion at gaging stations can be
Misconception 1:Total it is not reasonable to expect that pumping effective for determining both short-term
development of groundwater resources beneath an extensive confining layer will and long-term changes in streamflow in
from an aquifer is sustainable or safe entirely eliminate depletion. Furthermore, response to groundwater pumping, the
when the overall rate of groundwater pumping below discontinuous confining most robust approach for determining the
extraction does not exceed the long-term beds may actually increase the speed rates, locations, and timing of streamflow
average rate of recharge to the aquifer. of the depletion process relative to a depletion is numerical modeling.
In many aquifers, however, the level of condition in which the beds are absent. Numerical models have been
groundwater development may be limited used across the United States to
by the amount of reduced streamflow that Managing Streamflow Depletion by better understand and improve water-
a community or regulatory authority is Wells management options and practices
willing to accept. because they can account for the effects
Misconception 2: Streamflow Managing streamflow depletion by of complex aquifer settings, stream
depletion is dependent on the rate and wells is challenging because of the natural geometries, and pumping histories from
direction of water movement in an aquifer. complexity of groundwater systems, large numbers of wells on all types of
Actually, for all butthe most extreme the often-difficult task of identifying hydrologic features, including streams.
pumping conditions,therates, locations, streamflow depletion from data collected (See case study on the next page.)
and timing of streamflow depletion at gaging stations, and the time delays that
caused by pumping are independent of may occur between the onset of pumping Further Information
the prepumping rates and directions of until significant (that is, measurable)
effects occur in nearby streams. Therefore, A fuller exposition of the effects of
flow within an aquiferincluding the
effective management of streamflow groundwater pumping on streamflow can
recharge rates to anaquifer. Moreover,
depletion requires both a long-term be found in:
depletion is unlikely to be affected by
transient events such as changes in planning perspective and a basinwide Barlow, P.M., and Leake, S.A., 2012,
aquifer recharge rates or variations in understanding of how streamflow depletion Streamflow depletion by wells
river stage from flood flows in streams. responds to pumping each well individually Understanding and managing the
Misconception 3:Depletion and at all wells simultaneously. Many effects of groundwater pumping on
stops immediately after pumping ceases. groundwater basins have hundreds or streamflow: U.S. Geological Survey
Streamflow depletion continues after thousands of pumped wells. Individually, Circular 1376, 84 p. (Available at
pumping stops because it takes time these wells may have little effect on
for groundwater levels in the cone of Storage-
depression to recover from the previous dominated
pumping stress and for the aquifer to be Depletion-dominated supply
Percentage of groundwater pumping rate

refilled (fig. 1D). During the time that the
streamflow depletion
aquifer is being replenished, groundwater Water from
that otherwise would have flowed to
streams instead goes into aquifer storage;
thus, streamflow depletion is ongoing, 50
even though pumping has ceased. In
many cases, the time of maximum
streamflow depletion actually occurs
Water from
after pumping has stopped. Eventually, storage depletion
the aquifer and stream may return to their 0 tdds
prepumping conditions (fig. 1E), but the
Pumping time
time required for full recovery may be
quite long, possibly much longer than the Figure 2. Relation of storage change and streamflow depletion as sources of pumped
total time that the well was pumped. Over groundwater through time for a hypothetical well. The variable tdds is the time to reach the
the time interval from when pumping condition of depletion-dominated supply for a particular pumping location. In some settings, the
starts until the system fully recovers transition from storage-dominated to depletion-dominated supply can occur in a matter of days to
to its prepumping levels, the volume months, whereas for others depletion-dominated supply may not occur for decades.
Case Study: Use of Numerical Modeling for Analysis of Streamflow Depletion in the Upper San Pedro River Basin
11030 15 110
The upper San Pedro River
Basin spans the international
boundary between the United
States and Mexico, covering an
area of about 1,700 square miles.
Groundwater discharge sustains 3145
perennial reaches in the San Pedro Tombstone
River and its tributaries, as well iver
as the adjacent riparian area. The
m ar
riparian area provides year-round oco
habitat for wildlife species and Bab Charleston
is an important corridor for birds
migrating between Mexico and the Fort
United States. Huachuca
A numerical groundwater Sierra

model was used by USGS 30


hydrologists to study the timing


of depletion from pumping in


the aquifer of the upper San

Pedro River Basin. Model runs


were completed for about 1,500

hypothetical well locations ARIZONA, Bisbee



throughout the aquifer. The UNITED STATES

ro R
pumping time required to reach SONORA,
depletion-dominated supply was

determined for each of the potential

well locations and the results
plotted on a map. Maps such as
thesewhich have been referred
to as capture mapsprovide
a visual tool for scientists and
water-resource managers to better ARIZONA
understand the effects of pumping at
individual locations within a larger
set of possible pumping locations San Pedro
River Basin
within the aquifer. In the resulting
map, the lightest color, generally 31
adjacent to connected rivers, Model 0 5 10 MILES
indicates that depletion-dominated area 0 5 10 KILOMETERS
supply would occur within 10 years
of pumping. In contrast, the darkest EXPLANATION 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100
color indicates that depletion- Perennial and intermittent streams
dominated supply would not be Major roads Pumping time to reach depletion-dominated supply, in years
reached within 100 years.
Pumping time required to reach depletion-dominated supply as a function of well location in
the primary aquifer underlying the upper San Pedro River Basin.

Stanley A. Leake and Paul M. Barlow For more information contact:

U.S. Geological Survey
Arizona Water Science Center
Tucson, Arizona
Edited by Claire Landowski 520-670-6671
2010 B. HERRMANN and Lara Schmit This Fact Sheet and any updates to it are
Graphic design by Jeanne S. DiLeo available online at:
Banner photograph by Michael Collier