Globally, many solar power plants and other types of renewable energy are being located in water-scarce regions. Many projects rely on groundwater resources whose sustainability is uncertain. In the Chuckwalla Basin in California, quantification of recharge and trans-valley underflow is needed to estimate the impacts of solar project withdrawals on the water table.
However, such estimates are highly challenging due to data scarcity, heterogeneous soils and long residence times. Conventional assessment employs isolated groundwater models configured with crude and uniform estimates of recharge. Here, we employ a data-constrained surface subsurface processes model, PAWS+CLM, to provide an ensemble of recharges and underflows with perturbed parameters. Then, the Parameter Estimation (PEST) package is used to calibrate MODFLOW aquifer conductivity and filter out implausible recharges. The novel dual-model approach, potentially applicable in other arid regions, can effectively assimilate groundwater head observations, reject unrealistic parameters, and narrow the range of estimated drawdowns.
Simulated recharge concentrates along alluvial fans at the mountain fronts and ephemeral washes where run-off water infiltrates. If an evenly distributed recharge was assumed, it resulted in under-estimated drawdown and larger uncertainty bounds. The withdrawals are approaching total inflow, suggesting the system will be nearing, if not exceeding, its sustainable groundwater production capacity, and a boom of such projects will not be sustainable. Especially, the cost/benefit of pumped-storage projects is called into question as the initial-fill phase depletes entire area’s recharge. Our study highlights the stress on groundwater resources of solar development, and that the speed of groundwater recovery does not indicate sustainability.