Groundwater Hydrology This geode formed as water carrying dissolved silica percolated into an underground opening. The silica precipitated, forming the colored “growth rings” and quartz crystals. Water underground forms many spectacular natural features, and represents society’s most important source of fresh water .
The hydrologic cycle refers to the natural movement of water between various places on earth: the atmosphere, inside living things, the earth’s surface (the ocean, rivers, and lakes), and underground.
Humans can realistically tap only a small fraction of earth’s total fresh water supply. The most ready source of abundant fresh water is ground water -- all the water that naturally occurs underground in open spaces (pores and fractures) within rock.
The water table is a contact underground between the zone of aeration , where open spaces are filled mostly with air, and below that the zone of saturation where open spaces are filled with water. The water table often slopes due to uneven recharge and discharge. This slope creates a pressure gradient called hydraulic head , causing ground water to flow from higher areas to lower areas of the water table.
Ground water occurs in AQUIFERS -- large bodies of rock that have both high porosity and high permeability .
Porosity refers to the percentage of the rock made up of open spaces that can hold water .
Permeability refers to the ease with which water flows through the rock .
WATER is our most important natural resource. The hydrologic cycle refers to the natural movement of water between various places on earth: the atmosphere, inside living things, the earth’s surface (the ocean, rivers, and lakes), and underground. The vast majority of the earth’s water lies in the oceans . But sea water is not readily usable by humans. ( Desalination -- extracting fresh water from sea water -- is an expensive and difficult process and currently produces only a tiny fraction of fresh water used.) Of the earth’s fresh water the vast majority lies trapped in ice caps and glaciers -- again, not readily usable by humans. Of the earth’s liquid fresh water , some occurs on the earth’s surface in lakes, rivers and streams. But far more occurs underground in open spaces within rock.
Places that lack local supplies of fresh water adequate to suit demand must resort to importation -- bringing in water from elsewhere. In southern California, high human population, extensive irrigation agriculture, and generally arid conditions means that the majority of water is imported. Three major aquaducts - systems of pipes and canals - bring water to southern CA from the Colorado River, and the eastern and western sides of the Sierra Nevada (see map).
This map shows water consumption by state. California and Texas are #1 and #2 users of water respectively. Both states have extensive irrigation agriculture. Irrigation is the single largest user of fresh water in the U.S. and in the rest of the world.
The Water Table Going into the ground, one passes through the zone of aeration - the region where open spaces in the rock are filled mostly with air - and passes into the zone of saturation , where the open spaces are filled with water. The contact between these zones is the water table .
The water table does not remain fixed in position but
Fluctuates with the quantity of recent precipitation .
The water table is not stagnant. It flows and it rises and falls in elevation depending on rainfall. During drought situations the water table drops and water from streams may filter through the aerated zone down to the water table. When there is abundant rainfall, the groundwater table rises and recharges the stream.
Ground water occurs in AQUIFERS -- large bodies of rock that have both high porosity and high permeability . Porosity refers to the percentage of the rock made up of open spaces that can hold water . Pore spaces can be the spaces between sedimentary grains (a, b), gaps made when rock dissolves (c ), or cracks and fractures (d ).
Well-rounded coarse-grained sediments usually have higher porosity than fine-grained sediments, because the grains do not fit together well. Well sorted sediments and rocks hold greater amounts of water because there is a constant space between grains even when closest packed. Poorly sorted sediments usually have lower porosity because the fine-grained fragments tend to fill in the open space. Since cements tend to fill in the pore space, highly cemented sedimentary rocks have lower porosity. In igneous and metamorphic rocks porosity is usually low because the minerals tend to be intergrown, leaving little free space. Highly fractured igneous and metamorphic rocks, however, could have high porosity
Permeability is a measure of the degree to which the pore spaces are interconnected, and the size of the interconnections. Permeability refers to the ease with which water flows through the rock . Rock makes a good aquifer when it can hold a lot of water ( high porosity ) and allow that water to flow easily ( high permeability ). Common aquifer-forming rocks are: sandstone, conglomerate, limestone, and fractured igneous rock (rock that has been cracked by weathering or by stresses in the crust). Bodies of rock that have low permeability (do not allow water to flow through easily) are called an aquicludes . Such rocks form barriers to the movement of ground water. Common aquiclude-forming rocks are: shale and unfractured igneous rock.
Poorly sorted material have little open spaces between the grains (small grains fill little holes).
Well sorted sediments/rock is more porous.
Larger grains have the same % pore space as smaller grains but there is less friction between water and the grains in larger grained material. Larger grain sizes have higher permeability.
Fractures also greatly increase the permeability.
Porosity and Permeability influence movement and storage of groundwater.
In this figure, note the layer of shale that forms an aquiclude . Because downward percolating water cannot go through this layer, a small water table forms on top of the shale bed, above the level of the main water table. This condition is called a perched water table .
Water underground obeys gravity, just like water above ground. Both above and below ground, water flows downhill! If the water table has a slope , there will be pressure on the water to flow from higher areas to lower areas of the water table . The slope of the water table is called the hydraulic gradient . If the water table is flat there is no hydraulic gradient, and the water won’t flow. But if pressure is applied at the pump shown here….(next slide).
… the removal of water near the pump causes the water table to lower, forming a cone of depression in the water table. This creates a hydraulic gradient , and water flows “downhill” toward the well. The difference in elevation of the water table and the water level in the well is called the drawdown . The amount of drawdown depends on the rate of pumping and the permeability of the rock.
This figure illustrates nicely in 3-D how cones of depression form in the water table around pumping wells.
The water table will rise and fall as a function of water being added ( recharge ) and water leaving ( discharge ). A common pattern is for the water table to rise in the rainier season and lower in the drier season. A well that is not drilled deep enough may run dry during the season when the water table is low.
The concept of water flowing downhill underground (i.e. from high to low areas of the water table) is well illustrated by these two types of streams. In the influent stream (a), water flows away from the stream into the ground; the stream loses water to the water table. In the effluent stream (b), water flows into the stream from the ground; the stream gains water from the water table.
The rate at which groundwater moves through the saturated zone depends on the permeability of the rock and the hydraulic gradient . The hydraulic gradient is defined as the difference in elevation (h1-h2) divided by the distance between two points on the water table (L).
Velocity, V, is then: V = K(h2 - h1)/L
where K is the coefficient of permeability (Hydraulic conductivity); depends on the type of aquifer; it’s a constant for a particular aquifer type.
If we multiply this expression by the area, A, through which the water is moving, then we get the discharge, Q.
Q = AK(h2 - h1)/L, which is Darcy's Law .
Springs are places where water naturally flows out from the ground onto the surface. Springs are created when geologic conditions cause the water table to intersect the earth’s surface . In the example below, erosion of sedimentary layers containing a perched water table has caused the water table to intersect the surface, forming springs.
In this example, a fault has forced the water in a confined aquifer to rise to the surface to form springs.
An aquifer can be either confined or unconfined. Unconfined aquifers are not bound by impermeable rock layers. An artesian well results when there is an area of recharge to a confined aquifer (an aquifer bound by two impermeable layers). Pressure builds up within this layer.
The figure on the previous slide illustrates a special situation that can occur in some aquifers. Some aquifers are confined aquifers , in which the water is “sandwiched” in between aquicludes. In this case, if the confined aquifer is sloping , the water becomes pressurized by the difference in elevation. This pressure difference is called hydraulic head . In wells drilled into such aquifers the water rises upward due to hydraulic head, and may even flow out onto the surface. The figure below illustrates these concepts.
Because the aquifer is confined, the water is under pressure and will flow up to its potentiometric surface (imagine a U shaped pipe. Applying air pressure to one side might prevent water from ‘evening’ out in the pipe. Once the pressure is released, the water will flow up to a certain point….that’s the potentiometric surface).
Artesian wells are wells in which the pressure (hydraulic head) in a confined aquifer causes the water to rise upward in the well. In some cases the pressure is enough to cause the water to “erupt” out of the ground! The artesian well pictured below is an example.
Once you tap into a confined aquifer, the pressure is released, and the water flows to its potentiometric surface even if there is no land at that surface. The result is the water pumps itself right out of the ground! This is an artesian well, and you’d rather have one of these pump itself than have to exert energy to pump water from a regular well.
Water towers take advantage of the physics of artesian well systems. Water companies will expend energy pumping water into the tank once (as opposed to pumping water to each individual home). By creating a potentiometric surface at a higher altitude, the water, now under pressure, will flow through the pipe system without pumping.
Underground caverns near intrusive igneous heat sources forms hot springs and geysers. The groundwater heats up, steam forms, pressure increases and then water eventually is released out of the chambers followed by a steam blast. Cold water enters the caverns and the process repeats. That’s why eruptions are intermittent. Water, steam and pressure need to build up.
You now have a background into the main principles of ground water formation and movement. Now we will review the following major issues related to ground water problems and water management:
Salt water encroachment
Ground water pollution
Ground Water Problems and Water Management 1. Overdraft. The amount of water a particular aquifer can produce on a day-today basis indefinitely is called the sustained yield . If pumping exceeds the sustained yield, an overdraft situation exists, which will gradually lower the water table in the aquifer. This drives up pumping costs, causes shallow wells to go dry, and may cause subsidence problems. 2. Salt water encroachment occurs in coastal areas where sea water rises up underneath areas where fresh water is being pumped, producing salty water. Mitigation requires maintaining high fresh water tables to push the denser sea water down to lower levels underground. 3. Surface collapse. Solution of rock (particularly limestone) by acidic groundwater creates caverns , sinkholes , and karst terrane . Surface collapse in such areas causes damage. Collapse problems occur more frequently where pumping lowers the water table.
4. Dissolved materials and water quality. The amounts and types of dissolved ions in water determines its potability (its purity and “drinkability”). 5. Ground water pollution. Many types of pollutants can impair groundwater quality and cause health hazards. Various methods to mitigate ground water pollution are used, depending on the problem. 6. Conservation. Accomplished by personal voluntary conservation ; by recycling of waste water; by water-saving irrigation devices ; and through artificial recharge of aquifers (by trapping excess water during wet years). Irrigation is the single largest user of fresh water (about 82% of water use world-wide), and the majority of that comes from ground water. Establishing conservation measures for irrigation is the single best way to conserve our fresh water resources.
Overdraft An aquifer that gets recharged regularly with new water by nature can sustain a certain amount of pumping indefinitely. We define the sustained yield as the amount of water an aquifer can produce on a day-to-day basis without being depleted. If an aquifer is pumped at rates that exceed the sustained yield, we have an overdraft situation. In this case the water table will fall from year to year, as shown in this figure.
An overdraft situation is often referred to as “ ground water mining ”, because the resource is being removed faster than it can naturally form. The main problems caused by overdraft: - Increased costs in electricity to pump the water the extra distance up to the surface. - Shallower wells begin to run dry as the water table becomes lower. - Subsidence and/or surface collapse may occur as the water table becomes lower. Some of the worst overdraft problems occur in the High Plains Aquifer of the middle states of the U.S., stretching from Texas to South Dakota. Groundwater in this region has been heavily pumped since the 1950s to support agriculture…(see next slide…)
The red and orange areas on this map show areas where the water table in the High Plains Aquifer has been dropping over the past few decades. In some places it has dropped more than 100 feet! To sustain the economy of this region there have been several recent efforts to regulate and better conserve irrigation water. Hopefully these efforts will reduce the problem of overdraft here.
One solution to overdraft is to use artificial recharge to resupply an aquifer. Water may be brought in from elsewhere and allowed to percolate into the ground to refill the aquifer. In the photo here, a set of inflatable dams is used to trap river water that might otherwise flow by, and hold it until it seeps into the ground. (Santa Ana River, southern California.)
Salt Water Encroachment In coastal areas near the ocean, fresh ground water “floats” on denser seawater underground. The fresh water occurs in a curving, lens-shaped area. The thickness of this lens depends on the height of the fresh water table: the higher the fresh water table, the thicker the lens, and the farther down the area of salty water.
Ground water pumping that lowers the fresh water table too much allows sea water to rise up into wells, creating salty drinking water. This problem of salt water encroachment occurs in many heavily populated coastal areas, such as Long Island, NY (see figure below). Mitigation of salt water encroachment requires maintaining high fresh water tables to push the denser sea water down to lower levels underground.
Surface Collapse Ground water is slightly acidic , and over time it can dissolve away large amount of rock, particularly carbonate rock like limestone. This forms caves and caverns underground, and sinkholes (collapsed caverns) above ground. This type of landscape is known as karst terrane .
Karst topography is the landforms produced by groundwater. Specifically, groundwater that readily dissolves limestone. Active movement of groundwater with dissolved carbon dioxide/carbonic acid, effectively dissolves limestone beneath the ground.
Sinkholes are circular shaped depressions that form when an underground cavern collapses. Water collects in fractures in limestone and dissolves it. Fresh water enters and dissolution continues. As water travels through joints and fractures in the underground limestone, large caverns, caves form. The overlying rock and soil (and whatever is atop that) becomes too heavy and it collapses. If the water table is high enough, the sinkhole will fill with water.
Solution of limestone rock by ground water formed this cave, and precipitation of calcium carbonate by ground water created the dramatic cave features shown here: stalactites, stalagmites, and columns.
Land that has been completely perforated with sinkholes has the rugged and otherworldly appearance shown here. This region of southern China is classic karst terrane .
When an underground cavern collapses it forms a sinkhole , such as the one shown here in Winter Park, FL. Several homes and cars were destroyed (“swallowed” really!) by this sinkhole. In areas where ground water pumping has lowered the water table, sinkholes occur more frequently.
Because of the many holes that form from dissolution of limestone, streams that flow on the surface may ‘disappear’ right into the ground. Conveniently they are called Disappearing Streams.
Water Quality Ground water is never completely pure. Natural water contains a certain amount of dissolved substances. The U.S. Public Heath Service has defined the maximum amount of dissolved materials public water supplies can contain to be considered potable (safe and drinkable). The amounts are expressed in parts per million , or “ppm”. For example, if water contains 2.3 ounces of dissolved iron for every 1 million ounces of water, we say the concentration of iron is 2.3 ppm. Some materials dissolved in water are important for health. Our bodies need calcium, magnesium, fluoride, and other substances. Some materials, such as arsenic or lead, can be hazardous even at low concentrations. Some materials, while not necessarily hazardous in small amounts, can give water an unpleasant taste (iron, zinc, copper), or make it less able to do useful things like lather soap and remove dirt (calcium, magnesium).
Ground Water Pollution A pollutant is any kind of chemical, physical or biological substance that negatively affects water’s safety and usefulness. There are, unfortunately, many sources of ground water pollution. In urban areas , ground water is contaminated by leaking sewer systems, fuel storage tanks, runoff of pesticides, fertilizers, and highway salts, and wastes.
In rural areas , ground water is polluted by runoff of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers from farm fields, and by leaking septic tanks and leaching of fecal matter from animal feed lots.
Environmental consulting firms use groundwater modeling computer simulated programs to ‘predict’ the flow of groundwater (and its contaminants). They can estimate the direction of the ‘plume’, the time it takes for travel and if or when it will resurface in other fresh water systems (or water wells). These data can help to determine if remediation is necessary or not.
Water Conservation Water is a renewable resource, but all too often it is used faster by people than it is naturally replenished. Water conservation must be a fundamental part of any sustainable water policy. What are the main ways water can be conserved? 1. Recycling of waste water. Treatment of waste water can be done to different levels of purity. Water does not have to be potable to be useful. So called “gray water” can be used to irrigate public parks, roadsides, and certain crops. 2. Water-saving irrigation devices. Irrigation is the single largest user of fresh water (about 82% of water use world-wide), and the majority of that comes from ground water. Conservation devices for irrigation represent the single best way to conserve our fresh water resources. 3. Artificial recharge of aquifers. During wet years, water that would run off down rivers can be trapped and allowed to sink into the ground to recharge local aquifers. 4. Personal voluntary conservation.
Up to this point, we have discussed MASS WASTING -- the downward movement of material due directly to gravity. Another type of “downward movement” that causes problems is SUBSIDENCE -- the sinking downward of the earth’s surface . Subsidence is not dangerous, but it does cause major economic problems in the form of earth fissures (large cracks in the ground), and damage to structures, pipelines, drainage systems, and sewer systems. Subsidence can be caused by natural processes. For example, large earthquakes commonly cause vast areas of land to sink downward in some places, and rise upward in other places. But most problems involving subsidence are caused by human activities. SUBSIDENCE
The major causes of subsidence are from pumping of water, crude oil, or natural gas from deep underground . This figure shows why subsidence occurs when fluid (water, oil, natural gas) is pumped out of the ground. When the fluid pressure on the surrounding rock particles is reduced, the particles settle closer together, and the ground sinks.
Sometimes over pumping groundwater can be problematic. The San Joaqin Valley is a desert type climate situated at the base of a mountain range. Weathering of the mountains ‘filled’ in the valley with sediments. People built homes and what not on this area. Pumping the groundwater removed water molecules from between the sediments and the sediments compacted because of a lack of pressure. As a result, the area underwent serious subsidence.
Long Beach, CA, has experienced as much as 30 vertical feet of subsidence as oil has been pumped from deep underground. The building and parking lot at the left are several feet below sea level. Walls hold back the ocean, and boat owners walk uphill from the parking lot to get onto their boats!
This dog is thinking “How can I use that hydrant way up there?!” The hydrant was at ground level when it was installed. The hydrant was held in place by the piping system as the ground subsided around it. (This is in Long Beach, CA; same as previous slide).
Areas of Mexico City have subsided as ground water has been pumped out from the sedimentary layers beneath the city. This church’s foundation was built half on firm bedrock and half on sedimentary layers that subsided as water was withdrawn. Its pretty easy to tell here which side is which! Because Mexico City now imports most of its water through an aquaduct system, and has stopped most pumping of groundwater below the city, subsidence problems have decreased a great deal.