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How Ground Water Occurs

It is difficult to visualize water underground. Some people believe that ground water collects in underground lakes or flows in underground rivers. In fact, ground water is simply the subsurface water that fully saturates pores or cracks in soils and rocks. Ground water is replenished by precipitation and, depending on the local climate and geology, is unevenly distributed in both quantity and quality. When rain falls or snow melts, some of the water evaporates, some is transpired by plants, some flows overland and collects in streams, and some infiltrates into the pores or cracks of the soil and rocks. The first water that enters the soil replaces water that has been evaporated or used by plants during a preceding dry period. Between the land surface and the aquifer water is a zone that hydrologists call the unsaturated zone. In this unsaturated zone, there usually is at least a little water, mostly in smaller openings of the soil and rock; the larger openings usually contain air instead of water. After a significant rain, the zone may be almost saturated; after a long dry spell, it may be almost dry. Some water is held in the unsaturated zone by molecular attraction, and it will not flow toward or enter a well. Similar forces hold enough water in a wet towel to make it feel damp after it has stopped dripping.

How ground water occurs in rocks

How ground water occurs in rocks.

After the water requirements for plant and soil are satisfied, any excess water will infiltrate to the water table--the top of the zone below which the openings in rocks are saturated. Below the water table, all the openings in the rocks are full of water that moves through the aquifer to streams, springs, or wells from which water is being withdrawn. Natural refilling of aquifers at depth is a slow process because ground water moves slowly through the unsaturated zone and the aquifer. The rate of recharge is also an important consideration. It has been estimated, for example, that if the aquifer that underlies the High Plains of Texas and New Mexico--an area of slight precipitation--was emptied, it would take centuries to refill the aquifer at the present small rate of replenishment. In contrast, a shallow aquifer in an area of substantial precipitation may be replenished almost immediately.

Aquifers can be replenished artificially. For example, large volumes of ground water used for air conditioning are returned to aquifers through recharge wells on Long Island, New York. Aquifers may be artificially recharged in two main ways: One way is to spread water over the land in pits, furrows, or ditches, or to erect small dams in stream channels to detain and deflect surface runoff, thereby allowing it to infiltrate to the aquifer; the other way is to construct recharge wells and inject water directly into an aquifer as shown on page 10. The latter is a more expensive method but may be justified where the spreading method is not feasible. Although some artificial-recharge projects have been successful, others have been disappointments; there is still much to be learned about different ground-water environments and their receptivity to artificial-recharge practices.

A well, in simple concept, may be regarded as nothing more than an extra large pore in the rock. A well dug or drilled into saturated rocks will fill with water approximately to the level of the water table. If water is pumped from a well, gravity will force water to move from the saturated rocks into the well to replace the pumped water. This leads to the question: Will water be forced in fast enough under a pumping stress to assure a continuing water supply? Some rock, such as clay or solid granite, may have only a few hairline cracks through which water can move. Obviously, such rocks transmit only small quantities of water and are poor aquifers. By comparison, rocks such as fractured sandstones and cavernous limestone have large connected openings that permit water to move more freely; such rocks transmit larger quantities of water and are good aquifers. The amounts of water that an aquifer will yield to a well may range from a few hundred gallons a day to as much as several million gallons a day.


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