Groundwater is the water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand and rock. It is stored in and moves slowly through geologic formations of soil, sand and rocks called aquifers.
Groundwater is used for drinking water by more than 50 percent of the people in the United States, including almost everyone who lives in rural areas. The largest use for groundwater is to irrigate crops.
The area where water fills the aquifer is called the saturated zone (or saturation zone). The top of this zone is called the water table. The water table may be located only a foot below the ground’s surface or it can sit hundreds of feet down.
Aquifers are typically made up of gravel, sand, sandstone, or fractured rock, like limestone. Water can move through these materials because they have large connected spaces that make them permeable. The speed at which groundwater flows depends on the size of the spaces in the soil or rock and how well the spaces are connected.
Groundwater can be found almost everywhere. The water table may be deep or shallow; and may rise or fall depending on many factors. Heavy rains or melting snow may cause the water table to rise, or heavy pumping of groundwater supplies may cause the water table to fall.
Groundwater supplies are replenished, or recharged, by rain and snow melt that seeps down into the cracks and crevices beneath the land’s surface. In some areas of the world, people face serious water shortages because groundwater is used faster than it is naturally replenished. In other areas groundwater is polluted by human activities.
Water in aquifers is brought to the surface naturally through a spring or can be discharged into lakes and streams. Groundwater can also be extracted through a well drilled into the aquifer. A well is a pipe in the ground that fills with groundwater. This water can be brought to the surface by a pump. Shallow wells may go dry if the water table falls below the bottom of the well. Some wells, called artesian wells, do not need a pump because of natural pressures that force the water up and out of the well.
In areas where material above the aquifer is permeable, pollutants can readily sink into groundwater supplies. Groundwater can be polluted by landfills, septic tanks, leaky underground gas tanks, and from overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. If groundwater becomes polluted, it will no longer be safe to drink.
How much do we depend on groundwater?
- Groundwater supplies drinking water for 51% of the total U.S. population and 99% of the rural population.
- Groundwater helps grow our food. 64% of groundwater is used for irrigation to grow crops.
- Groundwater is an important component in many industrial processes.
- Groundwater is a source of recharge for lakes, rivers, and wetlands.
Image and figures courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey