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Ground Water and Surface Water A Single Resource--USGS Circular 1139


Challenges and Opportunities

The interaction of ground water and surface water involves many physical, chemical, and biological processes that take place in a variety of physiographic and climatic settings. For many decades, studies of the interaction of ground water and surface water were directed primarily at large alluvial stream and aquifer systems. Interest in the relation of ground water to surface water has increased in recent years as a result of widespread concerns related to water supply; contamination of ground water, lakes, and streams by toxic substances (commonly where not expected); acidification of surface waters caused by atmospheric deposition of sulfate and nitrate; eutrophication of lakes; loss of wetlands due to development; and other changes in aquatic environments. As a result, studies of the interaction of ground water and surface water have expanded to include many other settings, including headwater streams, lakes, wetlands, and coastal areas.

Issues related to water management and water policy were presented at the beginning of this report. The following sections address the need for greater understanding of the interaction of ground water and surface water with respect to the three issues of water supply, water quality, and characteristics of aquatic environments.

Water Supply

Water commonly is not present at the locations and times where and when it is most needed. As a result, engineering works of all sizes have been constructed to distribute water from places of abundance to places of need. Regardless of the scale of the water-supply system, development of either ground water or surface water can eventually affect the other. For example, whether the source of irrigation water is ground water or surface water, return flows from irrigated fields will eventually reach surface water either through ditches or through ground-water discharge. Building dams to store surface water or diverting water from a stream changes the hydraulic connection and the hydraulic gradient between that body of surface water and the adjacent ground water, which in turn results in gains or losses of ground water. In some landscapes, development of ground water at even a great distance from surface water can reduce the amount of ground-water inflow to surface water or cause surface water to recharge ground water.

The hydrologic system is complex, from the climate system that drives it, to the earth materials that the water flows across and through, to the modifications of the system by human activities. Much research and engineering has been devoted to the development of water resources for water supply. However, most past work has concentrated on either surface water or ground water without much concern about their interrelations. The need to understand better how develop- ment of one water resource affects the other is universal and will surely increase as development intensifies.

Water Quality

For nearly every type of water use, whether municipal, industrial, or agricultural, water has increased concentrations of dissolved constituents or increased temperature following its use. Therefore, the water quality of the water bodies that receive the discharge or return flow are affected by that use. In addition, as the water moves downstream, additional water use can further degrade the water quality. If irrigation return flow, or discharge from a municipal or industrial plant, moves downstream and is drawn back into an aquifer because of ground-water withdrawals, the ground-water system also will be affected by the quality of that surface water.

Application of irrigation water to cropland can result in the return flow having poorer quality because evapotranspiration by plants removes some water but not the dissolved salts. As a result, the dissolved salts can precipitate as solids, increasing the salinity of the soils. Additional application of water dissolves these salts and moves them farther downgradient in the hydrologic system. In addition, application of fertilizers and pesticides to cropland can result in poor-quality return flows to both ground water and surface water. The transport and fate of contaminants caused by agricultural practices and municipal and industrial discharges are a widespread concern that can be addressed most effectively if ground water and surface water are managed as a single resource.

Water scientists and water managers need to design data-collection programs that examine the effects of biogeochemical processes on water quality at the interface between surface water and near-surface sediments. These processes can have a profound effect on the chemistry of ground water recharging surface water and on the chemistry of surface water recharging ground water. Repeated exchange of water between surface water and near-surface sediments can further enhance the importance of these processes. Research on the interface between ground water and surface water has increased in recent years, but only a few stream environments have been studied, and the transfer value of the research results is limited and uncertain.

The tendency for chemical contaminants to move between ground water and surface water is a key consideration in managing water resources. With an increasing emphasis on watersheds as a focus for managing water quality, coordination between watershed-management and ground-water-protection programs will be essential to protect the quality of drinking water. Furthermore, ground-water and surface-water interactions have a major role in affecting chemical and biological processes in lakes, wetlands, and streams, which in turn affect water quality throughout the hydrologic system. Improved scientific understanding of the interconnections between hydrological and biogeochemical processes will be needed to remediate contaminated sites, to evaluate applications for waste-discharge permits, and to protect or restore biological resources.

Characteristics of Aquatic Environments

The interface between ground water and surface water is an areally restricted, but particularly sensitive and critical niche in the total environment. At this interface, ground water that has been affected by environmental conditions on the terrestrial landscape interacts with surface water that has been affected by environmental conditions upstream. Furthermore, the chemical reactions that take place where chemically distinct surface water meets chemically distinct ground water in the hyporheic zone may result in a biogeochemical environment that in some cases could be used as an indicator of changes in either terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems. The ability to understand this interface is challenging because it requires the focusing of many different scientific and technical disciplines at the same, areally restricted locality. The benefit of this approach to studying the interface of ground water and surface water could be the identification of useful biological or chemical indicators of adverse or positive changes in larger terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Wetlands are a type of aquatic environment present in most landscapes; yet, in many areas, their perceived value is controversial. The principal characteristics and functions of wetlands are determined by the water and chemical balances that maintain them. These factors in large part determine the value of a wetland for flood control, nutrient retention, and wildlife habitat. As a result, they are especially sensitive to changing hydrological conditions. When the hydrological and chemical balances of a wetland change, the wetland can take on a completely different function, or it may be destroyed. Generally, the most devastating impacts on wetlands result from changes in land use. Wetlands commonly are drained to make land available for agricultural use or filled to make land available for urban and industrial development. Without understanding how wetlands interact with ground water, many plans to use land formerly occupied by wetlands fail. For example, it is operationally straightforward to fill in or drain a wetland, but the ground-water flow system that maintains many wetlands may continue to discharge at that location. Many structures and roads built on former wetlands and many wetland restoration or construction programs fail for this reason. Saline soils in many parts of the central prairies also result from evaporation of ground water that continues to discharge to the land surface after the wetlands were drained.

Riparian zones also are particularly sensitive to changes in the availability and quality of ground water and surface water because these ecosystems commonly are dependent on both sources of water. If either water source changes, riparian zones may be altered, changing their ability to provide aquatic habitat, mitigate floods and erosion, stabilize shorelines, and process chemicals, including contaminants. Effective management of water resources requires an understanding of the role of riparian zones and their dependence on the interaction of ground water and surface water.


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