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.
Ground water is stored in, and moves slowly through, moderately to highly permeable rocks called aquifers. The word aquifer comes from the two Latin words, aqua, or water, and ferre, to bear or carry. Aquifers literally carry water underground. An aquifer may be a layer of gravel or sand, a layer of sandstone or cavernous limestone, a rubbly top or base of lava flows, or even a large body of massive rock, such as fractured granite, that has sizable openings. In terms of storage at any one instant in time, ground water is the largest single supply of fresh water available for use by humans.
Springs in Snake River Plain, Idaho.
Ground water has been known to humans for thousands of years. Scripture (Genesis 7:11) on the Biblical Flood states that "the fountains of the great deep (were) broken up," and Exodus, among its many references to water and to wells, refers (20:4) to "water under the Earth." Many other ancient chronicles show that humans have long known that much water is contained underground, but it is only within recent decades that scientists and engineers have learned to estimate how much ground water is stored underground and have begun to document its vast potential for use. An estimated one million cubic miles of the world's ground water is stored within one-half mile of the land surface. Only a fraction of this reservoir of ground water, however, can be practicably tapped and made available on a perennial basis through wells and springs. The amount of ground water in storage is more than 30 times greater than the nearly 30,000 cubic-miles volume in all the fresh-water lakes and more than the 300 cubic miles of water in all the world's streams at any given time.
Comparison of the amount of fresh water in storage.