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Publication Date
27 April 2022

Physical Controls on Irrigation Return Flow Contributions to Stream Flow in Irrigated Alluvial Valleys



Irrigation can be a significant source of groundwater recharge in many agricultural regions, particularly in arid and semi-arid climates. Once infiltrated, irrigation recharge can travel via subsurface flowpaths that return to the river system in a lagged manner, supplementing natural streamflow weeks, months, or even years from when the irrigation was applied. In regions that experience low flows during summer and early fall, return flows can be a significant source of supplementary streamflow. Many water planning and operations models either ignore return flows or roughly approximate them with analytical solutions. Thus, return flows represent an important but often overlooked component of the hydrological exchange and overall water balance in agricultural regions. This study uses groundwater models to explore a wide range of factors that control irrigation return flow timing in irrigated alluvial valleys. A sensitivity analysis approach is used to assess how factors such as the extent of irrigated land adjacent to a stream, irrigation recharge rate, aquifer hydraulic conductivity, aquifer thickness, water table configuration, and seasonal fluctuations in stream stage control the timing of subsurface return flows. Modeling is conducted using MODFLOW models representing an irrigated alluvial valley adjacent to a stream. While a simplification of the full complexity in real systems, the models are a significant advancement from the analytical solution and provide new insight into the timescales of return flows over a broad range of possible conditions. To contextualize our modeling results, they are compared to an analytical solution commonly used for approximating return flows to evaluate its performance. Our findings show what factors and conditions influence return flow timing and control whether they contribute to streamflow over short term (months) or longer term (seasonal) time scales.

Ferencz, Stephen B., and Vincent C. Tidwell. 2022. “Physical Controls On Irrigation Return Flow Contributions To Stream Flow In Irrigated Alluvial Valleys”. Frontiers In Water 4. Frontiers Media SA. doi:10.3389/frwa.2022.828099.
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