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How does ground water occur?

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.

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in the rocks are full of water that moves through the aquifer to streams, springs, or wells from which water is being withdrawn.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. 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.

An aquifer may be only a few or tens of feet thick to hundreds of feet thick. It may lie a few feet below the land surface to thousands of feet below. It may underlie thousands of square miles to just a few acres. The Dakota Sandstone, for example, carries water over great distances beneath many States, including parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. On the other hand, deposits of sand and gravel along many streams form aquifers of only local extent.

The quantity of water a given type of rock will hold depends on the rock's porosity--a measure of pore space between the grains of the rock or of cracks in the rock that can fill with water. For example, if the grains of a sand or gravel aquifer are all about the same size, or "well sorted," the water-filled spaces between the grains account for a large proportion of the volume of the aquifer. If the grains, however, are poorly sorted, the spaces between larger grains may be filled with smaller grains instead of water. Sand and gravel aquifers having well-sorted grains, therefore, hold and transmit larger quantities of water than such aquifers with poorly sorted grains.

Natural and artificial recharge of an aquifer.

Artesian aquifer. Both wells are artesian wells, although only one flows.

If water is to move through rock, the pores must be connected to one another. If the pore spaces are connected and large enough that water can move freely through them, the rock is said to be permeable. A rock that will yield large volumes of water to wells or springs must have many interconnected pore spaces or cracks. A compact rock almost without pore spaces, such as granite, may be permeable if it contains enough sizable and interconnected cracks or fractures. Nearly all consolidated rock formations are broken by parallel systems of cracks, called joints. These joints are caused by stresses in the Earth's crust. At first many joints are hairline cracks, but they tend to enlarge through the action of many physical and chemical processes. Ice crystals formed by water that freezes in rock crevices near the land surface will cause the rocks to split open. Heating by the Sun and cooling at night cause expansion and contraction that produce the same result. Water will enter the joints and may gradually dissolve the rock or erode weathered rock and thereby enlarge the openings.

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.

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.