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Ground Water, How Ground Water Occurs, Quality of Ground Water, Appraising the Nation's Ground-Water Resources

How Ground Water Occurs--Continued

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 fresh water 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.

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 intercepted by wells. Ground water 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. The word artesian comes from the town of Artois in France, the old Roman city of Artesium, where the best known flowing artesian wells were drilled in the Middle Ages. The level to which water will rise in tightly cased wells in artesian aquifers is called the potentiometric surface.

Deep wells drilled into rock to intersect the water table and reaching far below it are often called artesian wells in ordinary conversation, but this is not necessarily a correct use of the term. Such deep wells may be just like ordinary, shallower wells; great depth alone does not automatically make them artesian wells. The word artesian, properly used, refers to situations where the water is confined under pressure below layers of relatively impermeable rock.

Water being pumped from a well

Water being pumped from a well.

Water under artesian pressure flowing from a well

Water under artesian pressure flowing from a well.

Where ground water is not confined under pressure, it is described as being under water-table conditions. Water-table aquifers generally are recharged locally, and water tables in shallow aquifers may fluctuate up and down directly in unison with precipitation or streamflow.

A spring is the result of an aquifer being filled to the point that the water overflows onto the land surface. There are different kinds of springs and they may be classified according to the geologic formation from which they obtain their water, such as limestone springs or lava-rock springs; or according to the amount of water they discharge-large or small; or according to the temperature of the water-hot, warm, or cold; or by the forces causing the spring-gravity or artesian flow.

Thermal springs are ordinary springs except that the water is warm and, in some places, hot. Many thermal springs occur in regions of recent volcanic activity and are fed by water heated by contact with hot rocks far below the surface. Such are the thermal springs in Yellowstone National Park. Even where there has been no recent volcanic action, rocks become warmer with increasing depth. In some such areas water may migrate slowly to considerable depth, warming as it descends through rocks deep in the Earth. If it then reaches a large crevice that offers a path of less resistance, it may rise more quickly than it descended. Water that does not have time to cool before it emerges forms a thermal spring. The famous Warm Springs of Georgia and Hot Springs of Arkansas are of this type. Geysers are thermal springs that erupt intermittently and to differing heights above the land surface. Some geysers are spectacular and world famous, such as Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

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