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If you are standing on the ground, it is a safe bet that you are also standing on water (more like, “over” water). Water exists in significant amounts below just about all of the Earth’s surface. But, since you hardly ever see ground water, it may not be a topic of conversation between you and your friends very often. But it can be! Just take this true/false quiz about groundwater and you will find that you can amaze your friends with little-known facts at the next party.
What is groundwater?
These kids probably think there is some kind of magic happening here … they pull down a lever and out of the ground below their feet comes clear, cool freshwater. They (and maybe you) may not realize that there is an immense amount of water in aquifers below the earth’s surface. In fact, there is a hundred times more water in the ground than is in all the world’s rivers and lakes.
Some water underlies the Earth’s surface almost everywhere, beneath hills, mountains, plains, and deserts. It is not always accessible, or fresh enough for use without treatment, and it’s sometimes difficult to locate or to measure and describe. This water may occur close to the land surface, as in a marsh, or it may lie many hundreds of feet below the surface, as in some arid areas of the West. Water at very shallow depths might be just a few hours old; at moderate depth, it may be 100 years old; and at great depth or after having flowed long distances from places of entry, water may be several thousands of years old.
Groundwater occurs only close to the Earth’s surface. There must be space between the rock particles for groundwater to occur, and the Earth’s material becomes denser with more depth. Essentially, the weight of the rocks above condense the rocks below and squeeze out the open pore spaces deeper in the Earth. That is why groundwater can only be found within a few miles of the Earth’s surface.
Groundwater is an important part of the water cycle. Groundwater is the part of precipitation that seeps down through the soil until it reaches rock material that is saturated with water. Water in the ground is stored in the spaces between rock particles (no, there are no underground rivers or lakes). Groundwater slowly moves underground, generally at a downward angle (because of gravity), and may eventually seep into streams, lakes, and oceans.
Here is a simplified diagram showing how the ground is saturated below the water table (the purple area). The ground above the water table (the pink area) may be wet to a certain degree, but it does not stay saturated. The dirt and rock in this unsaturated zone contain air and some water and support the vegetation on the Earth. The saturated zone below the water table has water that fills the tiny spaces (pores) between rock particles and the cracks (fractures) of the rocks.
Why is there groundwater?
A couple of important factors are responsible for the existence of groundwater:
Nothing surprising here – gravity pulls water toward the center of the Earth. That means that water on the surface will try to seep into the ground below it.
(2) The Rocks Below Our Feet
The rock below the Earth’s surface is the bedrock. If all bedrock consisted of a dense material like solid granite, then even gravity would have a hard time pulling water downward. But Earth’s bedrock consists of many types of rock, such as sandstone, granite, and limestone. Bedrocks have varying amounts of void spaces in them where groundwater accumulates. Bedrock can also become broken and fractured, creating spaces that can fill with water. And some bedrock, such as limestone, are dissolved by water — which results in large cavities that fill with water.
In many places, if you looked at a vertical cross-section of the earth you would see that rock is laid down in layers, especially in areas of sedimentary rocks. Some layers have rocks that are more porous than others, and here water moves more freely (in a horizontal manner) through the earth. Sometimes when building a road, the layers are revealed by road cuts, and water can be seen seeping out through the exposed layers.
Try as it might, gravity doesn’t pull water all the way to the center of the Earth. Deep in the bedrock there are rock layers made of dense material, such as granite, or material that water has a hard time penetrating, such as clay. These layers may be underneath the porous rock layers and, thus, act as a confining layer to retard the vertical movement of water. Since it is more difficult for the water to go any deeper, it tends to pool in the porous layers and flow in a more horizontal direction across the aquifer toward an exposed surface-water body, like a river.
Visualize it this way: get two sponges and lay one on top of the other. Pour water (precipitation) on top and it will seep through the top sponge downward into the bottom sponge. If you stopped adding water, the top sponge would dry up and, as the water dripped out of the bottom sponge, it would dry up too. Now, put a piece of plastic wrap between the sponges, creating your “confining layer” (making the bottom sponge an impermeable rock layer that is too dense to allow water to flow through it). Now when you pour water on the top sponge, the water will seep downward until it hits the plastic wrap. The top sponge will become saturated, and when the water hits the plastic wrap it won’t be able to seep into the second sponge. Instead, it will start flowing sideways and come out at the edges of the sponge (horizontal flow of groundwater). This happens in the earth all the time — and it is an important part of the water cycle.
Information on this page is from Waller, Roger M., Ground Water and the Rural Homeowner, Pamphlet, U.S. Geological Survey, 1982
USGS Related Topics Regarding Groundwater
I hope you appreciate my spending an hour in the blazing sun to dig this hole at the beach. It is a great way to illustrate the concept of how, below a certain depth, the ground, if it is permeable enough to hold water, is saturated with water. The upper surface of this zone of saturation is called the water table. The saturated zone beneath the water table is called an aquifer, and aquifers are huge storehouses of water. What you are looking at in this picture is a “well” that exposes the water table, with an aquifer beneath it. Of course, I am cheating here, as at the beach, the level of the water table is always at the same level as the ocean, which is just below the surface of the beach.
Groundwater is one of our most valuable resource—even though you probably never see it or even realize it is there. As you may have read, most of the void spaces in the rocks below the water table are filled with water. But rocks have different porosity and permeability characteristics, which means that water does not move around the same way in all rocks below ground.
When a water-bearing rock readily transmits water to wells and springs, it is called an aquifer. Wells can be drilled into the aquifers and water can be pumped out. Precipitation eventually adds water (recharge) into the porous rock of the aquifer. The rate of recharge is not the same for all aquifers, though, and that must be considered when pumping water from a well. Pumping too much water too fast draws down the water in the aquifer and eventually causes a well to yield less and less water and even run dry. In fact, pumping your well too fast can even cause your neighbor’s well to run dry if you both are pumping from the same aquifer.
In the diagram below, you can see how the ground below the water table (the blue area) is saturated with water. The “unsaturated zone” above the water table (the greenish area) still contains water (after all, plants’ roots live in this area), but it is not totally saturated with water. You can see this in the two drawings at the bottom of the diagram, which show a close-up of how water is stored in between underground rock particles.
Sometimes the porous rock layers become tilted in the earth. There might be a confining layer of less porous rock both above and below the porous layer. This is an example of a confined aquifer. In this case, the rocks surrounding the aquifer confines the pressure in the porous rock and its water. If a well is drilled into this “pressurized” aquifer, the internal pressure might (depending on the ability of the rock to transport water) be enough to push the water up the well and up to the surface without the aid of a pump, sometimes completely out of the well. This type of well is called artesian. The pressure of water from an artesian well can be quite dramatic.
A relationship does not necessarily exist between the water-bearing capacity of rocks and the depth at which they are found. A very dense granite that will yield little or no water to a well may be exposed at the land surface. Conversely, a porous sandstone, such as the Dakota Sandstone mentioned previously, may lie hundreds or thousands of feet below the land surface and may yield hundreds of gallons per minute of water. Rocks that yield freshwater have been found at depths of more than 6,000 feet, and salty water has come from oil wells at depths of more than 30,000 feet. On the average, however, the porosity and permeability of rocks decrease as their depth below land surface increases; the pores and cracks in rocks at great depths are closed or greatly reduced in size because of the weight of overlying rocks.
Pumping can affect the level of the water table
Groundwater occurs in the saturated soil and rock below the water table. If the aquifer is shallow enough and permeable enough to allow water to move through it at a rapid-enough rate, then people can drill wells into it and withdraw water. The level of the water table can naturally change over time due to changes in weather cycles and preciptiation patterns, streamflow and geologic changes, and even human-induced changes, such as the increase in impervious surfaces on the landscape.
The pumping of wells can have a great deal of influence on water levels below ground, especially in the vicinity of the well, as this diagram shows. If water is withdrawn from the ground at a faster rate that it is replenished, either by infiltration from the surface of from streams, then the water table can become lower, resulting in a “cone of depression” around the well. Depending on geologic and hydrologic conditions of the aquifer, the impact on the level of the water table can be short-lived or last for decades, and it can fall a small amount or many hundreds of feet. Excessive pumping can lower the water table so much that the wells no longer supply water—they can “go dry.”
Water movement in aquifers
Water movement in aquifers is highly dependent of the pearmeablility of the aquifer material. Permeable material contains interconnected cracks or spaces that are both numerous enough and large enough to allow water to move freely. In some permeable materials groundwater may move several metres in a day; in other places, it moves only a few centimetres in a century. Groundwater moves very slowly through relatively impermeable materials such as clay and shale. (Source: Environment Canada)
After entering an aquifer, water moves slowly toward lower lying places and eventually is discharged from the aquifer from springs, seeps into streams, or is withdrawn from the ground by wells. Groundwater in aquifers between layers of poorly permeable rock, such as clay or shale, may be confined under pressure. If such a confined aquifer is tapped by a well, water will rise above the top of the aquifer and may even flow from the well onto the land surface. Water confined in this way is said to be under artesian pressure, and the aquifer is called an artesian aquifer.
Visualizing artesian pressure
Here’s a little experiment to show you how artesian pressure works. Fill a plastic sandwich baggie with water, put a straw in through the opening, tape the opening around the straw closed, DON’T point the straw towards your teacher or parents, and then squeeze the baggie. Artesian water is pushed out through the straw.
Some information on this page is from “Ground Water and the Rural Homeowner, Pamphlet”, U.S. Geolgoical Survey, by Waller, Roger M.,,1982
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