Evaluation of Streamflow Depletion Related to Groundwater Withdrawal, Humboldt River Basin

Humboldt River Basin Facts

Drainage Area: 17,000 square miles

Size: 15% of the total area of Nevada

Contact Information

Kyle Davis
(775) 887-7671


The Humboldt River Basin (HRB) is the only major river basin that is entirely within the State of Nevada. Precipitation supplies all the water that enters the basin; consequently, the variability in climate has significant impacts on the hydrology of the area. In addition, increased development which has been superimposed on natural climate fluctuations affects the water resources of the basin. Continued groundwater withdrawals within the Humboldt River Basin are likely contributing to streamflow depletion of the Humboldt River. The timing and magnitude of the effects of groundwater withdrawals on streamflow of the Humboldt River are not well understood. Although groundwater use in the Humboldt River Basin is primarily for agriculture, a substantial quantity of groundwater has been removed from consolidated rock units and basin fill as part of mining activity in the middle Humboldt River basin. The contribution to streamflow depletion by mine dewatering is currently thought to be relatively small, largely because much of the water was or continues to be returned to the river or to unconsolidated deposits near the river. However, many Humboldt River water rights holders contend that mine dewatering contributes significantly to streamflow depletion.

Research Plan

To evaluate the impacts of groundwater withdrawals on streamflow, three transient, regional-scale flow models will be developed and documented. The three models will represent the upper, middle, and lower Humboldt River Basins, respectively. The middle HRB model will be developed by the USGS; the upper HRB model is being developed separately and simultaneously by the Desert Research Institute (DRI); and the lower HRB model will be co-developed by the USGS and DRI. These models will assist us in:

  • Estimating Humboldt River streamflow depletion caused by groundwater withdrawals within the Humboldt River Basin between Carlin and Imlay streamflow gages after 10, 25, 50, and 100 years of groundwater withdrawals (Depletion maps).
  • Estimating the impact to and response of Humboldt River streamflow for up to 100 years in the future as a result of mine-dewatering operations to date (2015).
  • Estimating the effect of cumulative groundwater withdrawals from individual hydrographic areas on Humboldt River streamflow.

These estimates will provide the Nevada State Engineer with appropriate information to understand and evaluate the potential effects of groundwater withdrawals on the Humboldt River in order to make informed decisions regarding conjunctive use and possible augmentation of flow to senior water right holders. In addition, this work will provide the State of Nevada an opportunity to inform stakeholders within the Humboldt River Basin about processes related to the interaction between groundwater and surface water.