Link to USGS home page

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


Human activities commonly affect the distribution, quantity, and chemical quality of water resources. The range in human activities that affect the interaction of ground water and surface water is broad. The following discussion does not provide an exhaustive survey of all human effects but emphasizes those that are relatively widespread. To provide an indication of the extent to which humans affect the water resources of virtually all landscapes, some of the most relevant structures and features related to human activities are superimposed on various parts of the conceptual landscape (Figure 25).

The effects of human activities on the quantity and quality of water resources are felt over a wide range of space and time scales. In the following discussion, "short term" implies time scales from hours to a few weeks or months, and "long term" may range from years to decades. "Local scale" implies distances from a few feet to a few thousand feet and areas as large as a few square miles, and "subregional and regional scales" range from tens to thousands of square miles. The terms point source and nonpoint source with respect to discussions of contamination are used often; therefore, a brief discussion of the meaning of these terms is presented in Box M.

(Box M)

Agricultural Development

Agriculture has been the cause of significant modification of landscapes throughout the world. Tillage of land changes the infiltration and runoff characteristics of the land surface, which affects recharge to ground water, delivery of water and sediment to surface-water bodies, and evapotranspiration. All of these processes either directly or indirectly affect the interaction of ground water and surface water. Agriculturalists are aware of the substantial negative effects of agriculture on water resources and have developed methods to alleviate some of these effects. For example, tillage practices have been modified to maximize retention of water in soils and to minimize erosion of soil from the land into surface-water bodies. Two activities related to agriculture that are particularly relevant to the interaction of ground water and surface water are irrigation and application of chemicals to cropland.


Figure 25. Human activities and structures, as depicted by the distribution of various examples in the conceptual landscape, affect the interaction of ground water and surface water in all types of landscapes.

Irrigation systems

Surface-water irrigation systems represent some of the largest integrated engineering works undertaken by humans. The number of these systems greatly increased in the western United States in the late 1840s. In addition to dams on streams, surface-water irrigation systems include (1) a complex network of canals of varying size and carrying capacity that transport water, in many cases for a considerable distance, from a surface-water source to individual fields, and (2) a drainage system to carry away water not used by plants that may be as extensive and complex as the supply system. The drainage system may include underground tile drains. Many irrigation systems that initially used only surface water now also use ground water. The pumped ground water commonly is used directly as irrigation water, but in some cases the water is distributed through the system of canals.

Average quantities of applied water range from several inches to 20 or more inches of water per year, depending on local conditions, over the entire area of crops. In many irrigated areas, about 75 to 85 percent of the applied water is lost to evapotranspiration and retained in the crops (referred to as consumptive use). The remainder of the water either infiltrates through the soil zone to recharge ground water or it returns to a local surface-water body through the drainage system (referred to as irrigation return flow). The quantity of irrigation water that recharges ground water usually is large relative to recharge from precipitation because large irrigation systems commonly are in regions of low precipitation and low natural recharge. As a result, this large volume of artificial recharge can cause the water table to rise (see Box N), possibly reaching the land surface in some areas and waterlogging the fields. For this reason, drainage systems that maintain the level of the water table below the root zone of the crops, generally 4 to 5 feet below the land surface, are an essential component of some irrigation systems. The permanent rise in the water table that is maintained by continued recharge from irrigation return flow commonly results in an increased outflow of shallow ground water to surface-water bodies downgradient from the irrigated area.

(Box N)

Although early irrigation systems made use of surface water, the development of large-scale sprinkler systems in recent decades has greatly increased the use of ground water for irrigation for several reasons: (1) A system of supply canals is not needed, (2) ground water may be more readily available than surface water, and (3) many types of sprinkler systems can be used on irregular land surfaces; the fields do not have to be as flat as they do for gravity-flow, surface-water irrigation. Whether ground water or surface water was used first to irrigate land, it was not long before water managers recognized that development of either water resource could affect the other. This is particularly true in many alluvial aquifers in arid regions where much of the irrigated land is in valleys.

Significant changes in water quality accompany the movement of water through agricultural fields. The water lost to evapotranspiration is relatively pure; therefore, the chemicals that are left behind precipitate as salts and accumulate in the soil zone. These continue to increase as irrigation continues, resulting in the dissolved-solids concentration in the irrigation return flows being significantly higher in some areas than that in the original irrigation water. To prevent excessive buildup of salts in the soil, irrigation water in excess of the needs of the crops is required to dissolve and flush out the salts and transport them to the ground-water system. Where these dissolved solids reach high concentrations, the artificial recharge from irrigation return flow can result in degradation of the quality of ground water and, ultimately, the surface water into which the ground water discharges.

"Whether ground water or surface water was used first to irrigate land, it was not long before water managers recognized that development of either water resource could affect the other"

Use of agricultural chemicals

Applications of pesticides and fertilizers to cropland can result in significant additions of contaminants to water resources. Some pesticides are only slightly soluble in water and may attach (sorb) to soil particles instead of remaining in solution; these compounds are less likely to cause contamination of ground water. Other pesticides, however, are detected in low, but significant, concentrations in both ground water and surface water. Ammonium, a major component of fertilizer and manure, is very soluble in water, and increased concentrations of nitrate that result from nitrification of ammonium commonly are present in both ground water and surface water associated with agricultural lands (see Box O). In addition to these nonpoint sources of water contamination, point sources of contamination are common in agricultural areas where livestock are concentrated in small areas, such as feedlots. Whether the initial contamination is present in ground water or surface water is somewhat immaterial because the close interaction of the two sometimes results in both being contaminated (see Box P). 

(Box O)

(Box P)

"Whether the initial contamination is present in ground water or surface water is somewhat immaterial because the close interaction of the two sometimes results in both being contaminated"

Urban and Industrial Development

Point sources of contamination to surface-water bodies are an expected side effect of urban development. Examples of point sources include direct discharges from sewage-treatment plants, industrial facilities, and stormwater drains. These facilities and structures commonly add sufficient loads of a variety of contaminants to streams to strongly affect the quality of the stream for long distances downstream. Depending on relative flow magnitudes of the point source and of the stream, discharge from a point source such as a sewage-treatment plant may represent a large percentage of the water in the stream directly downstream from the source. Contaminants in streams can easily affect ground-water quality, especially where streams normally seep to ground water, where ground-water withdrawals induce seepage from the stream, and where floods cause stream water to become bank storage.

Point sources of contamination to ground water can include septic tanks, fluid storage tanks, landfills, and industrial lagoons. If a contaminant is soluble in water and reaches the water table, the contaminant will be transported by the slowly moving ground water. If the source continues to supply the contaminant over a period of time, the distribution of the dissolved contaminant will take a characteristic "plumelike" shape (see Box M). These contaminant plumes commonly discharge into a nearby surface-water body. If the concentration of contaminant is low and the rate of discharge of plume water also is small relative to the volume of the receiving surface-water body, the discharging contaminant plume will have only a small, or perhaps unmeasurable, effect on the quality of the receiving surface-water body. Furthermore, biogeochemical processes may decrease the concentration of the contaminant as it is transported through the shallow ground-water system and the hyporheic zone. On the other hand, if the discharge of the contaminant plume is large or has high concentrations of contaminant, it could significantly affect the quality of the receiving surface-water body.

"Contaminants in streams can easily affect ground-water quality, especially where streams normally seep to ground water, where ground-water withdrawals induce seepage from the stream, and where floods cause stream water to become bank storage"

Drainage of the Land Surface

In landscapes that are relatively flat, have water ponded on the land surface, or have a shallow water table, drainage of land is a common practice preceding agricultural and urban development. Drainage can be accomplished by constructing open ditches or by burying tile drains beneath the land surface. In some glacial terrain underlain by deposits having low permeability, drainage of lakes and wetlands can change the areal distribution of ground-water recharge and discharge, which in turn can result in significant changes in the biota that are present and in the chemical and biological processes that take place in wetlands. Furthermore, these changes can ultimately affect the baseflow to streams, which in turn affects riverine ecosystems. Drainage also alters the water-holding capacity of topographic depressions as well as the surface runoff rates from land having very low slopes. More efficient runoff caused by drainage systems results in decreased recharge to ground water and greater contribution to flooding.

Drainage of the land surface is common in regions having extensive wetlands, such as coastal, riverine, and some glacial-lake landscapes. Construction of artificial drainage systems is extensive in these regions because wetland conditions generally result in deep, rich, organic soils that are much prized for agriculture. In the most extensive artificially drained part of the Nation, the glacial terrain of the upper Midwest, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of the original wetland areas have been destroyed. In Iowa alone, the destruction exceeds 90 percent. Although some wetlands were destroyed by filling, most were destroyed by drainage.

Modifications to River Valleys

Construction of levees

Levees are built along riverbanks to protect adjacent lands from flooding. These structures commonly are very effective in containing smaller magnitude floods that are likely to occur regularly from year to year. Large floods that occur much less frequently, however, sometimes overtop or breach the levees, resulting in widespread flooding. Flooding of low-lying land is, in a sense, the most visible and extreme example of the interaction of ground water and surface water. During flooding, recharge to ground water is continuous; given sufficient time, the water table may rise to the land surface and completely saturate the shallow aquifer (see Figure 12). Under these conditions, an extended period of drainage from the shallow aquifer takes place after the floodwaters recede. The irony of levees as a flood protection mechanism is that if levees fail during a major flood, the area, depth, and duration of flooding in some areas may be greater than if levees were not present.

Construction of reservoirs

The primary purpose of reservoirs is to store water for uses such as public water supply, irrigation, flood attentuation, and generation of electric power. Reservoirs also can provide opportunities for recreation and wildlife habitat. Water needs to be stored in reservoirs because streamflow is highly variable, and the times when streamflow is abundant do not necessarily coincide with the times when the water is needed. Streamflow can vary daily in response to individual storms and seasonally in response to variation in weather patterns.

The effects of reservoirs on the interaction of ground water and surface water are greatest near the reservoir and directly downstream from it. Reservoirs can cause a permanent rise in the water table that may extend a considerable distance from the reservoir, because the base level of the stream, to which the ground-water gradients had adjusted, is raised to the higher reservoir levels. Near the dam, reservoirs commonly lose water to shallow ground water, but this water commonly returns to the river as base flow directly downstream from the dam. In addition, reservoirs can cause temporary bank storage at times when reservoir levels are high. In some cases, this temporary storage of surface water in the ground-water system has been found to be a significant factor in reservoir management (see Box Q).

(Box Q)

Human-controlled reservoir releases and accumulation of water in storage may cause high flows and low flows to differ considerably in magnitude and timing compared to natural flows. As a result, the environmental conditions in river valleys downstream from a dam may be altered as organisms try to adjust to the modified flow conditions. For example, the movement of water to and from bank storage under controlled conditions would probably be much more regular in timing and magnitude compared to the highly variable natural flow conditions, which probably would lead to less biodiversity in river systems downstream from reservoirs. The few studies that have been made of riverine ecosystems downstream from a reservoir indicate that they are different from the pre-reservoir conditions, but much more needs to be understood about the effects of reservoirs on stream channels and riverine ecosystems downstream from dams.

Removal of natural vegetation

To make land available for agriculture and urban growth, development sometimes involves cutting of forests and removal of riparian vegetation and wetlands. Forests have a significant role in the hydrologic regime of watersheds. Deforestation tends to decrease evapotranspiration, increase storm runoff and soil erosion, and decrease infiltration to ground water and base flow of streams. From the viewpoint of water-resource quality and management, the increase in storm runoff and soil erosion and the decrease in base flow of streams are generally viewed as undesirable.

In the western United States, removal of riparian vegetation has long been thought to result in an increase in streamflow. It commonly is believed that the phreatophytes in alluvial valleys transpire ground water that otherwise would flow to the river and be available for use (see Box R). Some of the important functions of riparian vegetation and riparian wetlands include preservation of aquatic habitat, protection of the land from erosion, flood mitigation, and maintenance of water quality. Destruction of riparian vegetation and wetlands removes the benefits of erosion control and flood mitigation, while altering aquatic habitat and chemical processes that maintain water quality.

(Box R)

Modifications to the Atmosphere

Atmospheric deposition

Atmospheric deposition of chemicals, such as sulfate and nitrate, can cause some surface-water bodies to become acidic. Concern about the effects of acidic precipitation on aquatic ecosystems has led to research on the interaction of ground water and surface water, especially in small headwaters catchments. It was clear when the problem was first recognized that surface-water bodies in some environments were highly susceptible to acidic precipitation, whereas in other environments they were not. Research revealed that the interaction of ground water and surface water is important to determining the susceptibility of a surface-water body to acidic precipitation (see Box S). For example, if a surface-water body received a significant inflow of ground water, chemical exchange while the water passed through the subsurface commonly neutralized the acidic water, which can reduce the acidity of the surface water to tolerable levels for aquatic organisms. Conversely, if runoff of acidic precipitation was rapid and involved very little flow through the ground-water system, the surface-water body was highly vulnerable and could become devoid of most aquatic life.

(Box S)

"The interaction of ground water and surface water is important to determining the susceptibility of a surface-water body to acidic precipitation"

Global warming

The concentration of gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, in the atmosphere has a significant effect on the heat budget of the Earth's surface and the lower atmosphere. The increase in concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere of about 25 percent since the late 1700s generally is thought to be caused by the increase in burning of fossil fuels. At present, the analysis and prediction of "global warming" and its possible effects on the hydrologic cycle can be described only with great uncertainty. Although the physical behavior of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is well understood, climate systems are exceedingly complex, and long-term changes in climate are embedded in the natural variability of the present global climate regime.

Surficial aquifers, which supply much of the streamflow nationwide and which contribute flow to lakes, wetlands, and estuaries, are the aquifers most sensitive to seasonal and longer term climatic variation. As a result, the interaction of ground water and surface water also will be sensitive to variability of climate or to changes in climate. However, little attention has been directed at determining the effects of climate change on shallow aquifers and their interaction with surface water, or on planning how this combined resource will be managed if climate changes significantly.



Back--Natural processes of ground-water and surface-water interaction
Back to Contents

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: Publishing Service Center
Last modified: Wednesday, November 23 2016, 12:02:50 PM
FirstGov button  Take Pride in America button