Simulating Groundwater-Streamflow Connections in the Upper Colorado River Basin

Hoang Tran, Jun Zhang, Jean Martial Cohard, Laura E. Condon, Reed M. Maxwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


In mountain, snow driven catchments, snowmelt is supposed to be the primary contribution to river streamflows during spring. In these catchments the contribution of groundwater is not well documented because of the difficulty to monitor groundwater in such complex environment with deep aquifers. In this study we use an integrated hydrologic model to conduct numerical experiments that help quantify the effect of lateral groundwater flow on total annual and peak streamflow in predevelopment conditions. Our simulations focus on the Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB; 2.8 × 105 km2) a well-documented mountain catchment for which both streamflow and water table measurements are available for several important sub-basins. For the simulated water year, our results suggest an increase in peak flow of up to 57% when lateral groundwater flow processes are included—an unexpected result for flood conditions generally assumed independent of groundwater. Additionally, inclusion of lateral groundwater flow moderately improved the model match to observations. The correlation coefficient for mean annual flows improved from 0.84 for the no lateral groundwater flow simulation to 0.98 for the lateral groundwater flow one. Spatially we see more pronounced differences between lateral and no lateral groundwater flow cases in areas of the domain with steeper topography. We also found distinct differences in the magnitude and spatial distribution of streamflow changes with and without lateral groundwater flow between Upper Colorado River Sub-basins. A sensitivity test that scaled hydraulic conductivity over two orders of magnitude was conducted for the lateral groundwater flow simulations. These results show that the impact of lateral groundwater flow is as large or larger than an order of magnitude change in hydraulic conductivity. While our results focus on the UCRB, we feel that these simulations have relevance to other headwaters systems worldwide.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)392-405
Number of pages14
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Computers in Earth Sciences


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