Developing Potentiometric Surfaces and Flow Fields with a Head-Specified MODFLOW Model

Daniel B. Abrams, George S. Roadcap, Devin Mannix

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Investigating changes in an aquifer system often involves comparison of observed heads from different synoptic measurements, generally with potentiometric surfaces developed by hand or a statistical approach. Alternatively, head-specified MODFLOW models, in which constant head cells simulate observed heads, generate gridded potentiometric surfaces that explicitly account for Darcy's Law and mass balance. We developed a transient head-specified MODFLOW model for the stratified Cambrian-Ordovician sandstone aquifer system of northeastern Illinois to analyze flow within its 275 m deep cone of depression. Potentiometric surfaces were developed using static heads from production wells regardless of open interval; hence assuming no vertical head difference. This assumption was tested against steady-state, head-specified models of each sandstone strata for 1980 and 2014. The results indicate that the original conceptual model was appropriate in 1980 but not 2014, where a vertical head difference had developed at the center of the cone of depression. For earlier years, when the head difference was minimal, the transient head-specified model compared well with a traditional, flow-specified model. In later years, the transient head-specified model overestimated removal of water from storage. MODFLOW facilitates the development of a time-series of potentiometric surfaces and can easily be modified to test the impacts of different conceptual models, such as assumptions on vertical head differences. For this study of a deep confined aquifer, MODFLOW also offers advantages in generating potentiometric surfaces and flow fields over statistical interpolation techniques, although future research is needed to assess its performance in other settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8-17
Number of pages10
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Computers in Earth Sciences

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