Evaluating the relationship between topography and groundwater using outputs from a continental-scale integrated hydrology model

Laura E. Condon, Reed M. Maxwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

122 Scopus citations


We study the influence of topography on groundwater fluxes and water table depths across the contiguous United States (CONUS). Groundwater tables are often conceptualized as subdued replicas of topography. While it is well known that groundwater configuration is also controlled by geology and climate, nonlinear interactions between these drivers within large real-world systems are not well understood and are difficult to characterize given sparse groundwater observations. We address this limitation using the fully integrated physical hydrology model ParFlow to directly simulate groundwater fluxes and water table depths within a complex heterogeneous domain that incorporates all three primary groundwater drivers. Analysis is based on a first of its kind, continental-scale, high-resolution (1 km), groundwater-surface water simulation spanning more than 6.3 million km2. Results show that groundwater fluxes are most strongly driven by topographic gradients (as opposed to gradients in pressure head) in humid regions with small topographic gradients or low conductivity. These regions are generally consistent with the topographically controlled groundwater regions identified in previous studies. However, we also show that areas where topographic slopes drive groundwater flux do not generally have strong correlations between water table depth and elevation. Nonlinear relationships between topography and water table depth are consistent with groundwater flow systems that are dominated by local convergence and could also be influenced by local variability in geology and climate. One of the strengths of the numerical modeling approach is its ability to evaluate continental-scale groundwater behavior at a high resolution not possible with other techniques.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6602-6621
Number of pages20
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


  • groundwater
  • heterogeneity
  • modeling
  • water table depth


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