7 Earth’s Fresh Water

7.1 Distribution of Earth’s Water

Water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen bonded together. Despite its simplicity, water has remarkable properties. Water expands when it freezes and has high surface tension, because of the polar nature of the molecules that they tend to stick together. Without water, life might not be able to exist on Earth, and it certainly would not have the tremendous complexity and diversity that we see.


Earth’s water distribution.


Earth’s oceans contain 97 percent of the planet’s water and just 3 percent is fresh water with relatively low concentrations of salts. Most freshwater is trapped as ice in the vast glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. A storage location for water such as an ocean, glacier, pond, or even the atmosphere is known as a reservoir. A water molecule may pass through a reservoir very quickly or may remain for much longer. The amount of time a molecule stays in a reservoir is known as its residence time.


The Hydrologic Cycle

Because of the unique properties of water, water molecules can cycle through almost anywhere on Earth. The water molecule found in a glass of water today could have erupted from a volcano early in Earth history. In the intervening billions of years, the molecule probably spent time in a glacier or far below the ground. The molecule surely was high up in the atmosphere and maybe deep in the belly of a dinosaur.

Water is the only substance on Earth that is present in all three states of matter – as a solid, liquid or gas. Along with that, Earth is the only planet where water is present in all three states. Because of the ranges in temperature in specific locations around the planet, all three phases may be present in a single location or a region. The three phases are solid (ice or snow), liquid (water), and gas (water vapor).

Water is continuously on the move. It is evaporated from the oceans, lakes, streams, the surface of the land, and plants (transpiration) by solar energy. It is moved through the atmosphere by winds and condenses to form clouds of water droplets or ice crystals. It comes back down as rain or snow and then flows through streams, into lakes, and eventually back to the oceans. Water on the surface and in streams and lakes infiltrates the ground to become groundwater. Groundwater slowly moves through the rock and surficial materials. Some groundwater returns to other streams and lakes, and some go directly back to the oceans.

Because Earth’s water is present in all three states, it can get into a variety of environments around the planet. The movement of water around the Earth’s surface is the hydrologic (water) cycle. Water changes from a liquid to a gas by evaporation to become water vapor. The Sun’s energy can evaporate water from the ocean surface or lakes, streams, or puddles on land. Only the water molecules evaporate; the salts remain in the ocean or a freshwater reservoir. The water vapor remains in the atmosphere until it undergoes condensation to become tiny droplets of liquid. The droplets gather in clouds, which are blown about the globe by the wind. As the water droplets in the clouds collide and grow, they fall from the sky as precipitation. Precipitation can be rain, sleet, hail, or snow. Sometimes precipitation falls back into the ocean, and sometimes it falls onto the land surface.

Illustration of the energy balance between Earth’s surface and the atmosphere. The surface absorbs about 48% of incoming sunlight. Three processes remove an equivalent amount of energy from the Earth’s surface: evaporation (25%), convection (5%), and thermal infrared radiation, or heat (net 17%). (NASA illustration by Robert Simmon.)

When water falls from the sky as rain, it may enter streams and rivers that flow downward to oceans and lakes. Water that falls as snow may sit on a mountain for several months. Snow may become part of the ice in a glacier, where it may remain for hundreds or thousands of years. Snow and ice may go directly back into the air by sublimation, the process in which a solid changes directly into a gas without first becoming a liquid. Although it is hard to see water vapor sublimate from a glacier, it is possible to see dry ice sublimate in the air.

Snow and ice slowly melt over time to become liquid water, which provides a steady flow of fresh water to streams, rivers, and lakes below. A water droplet falling as rain could also become part of a stream or a lake. At the surface, the water may eventually evaporate and reenter the atmosphere.

A significant amount of water infiltrates into the ground and soil moisture is an important reservoir for that water. Water trapped in soil is essential for plants to grow. Water may seep through dirt and rock below the soil through pores infiltrating the ground to go into Earth’s groundwater system. Groundwater may enter aquifers that may store fresh water for centuries. Alternatively, the water may come to the surface through springs or find its way back to the oceans. Plants and animals depend on water to live, and they also play a role in the water cycle. Plants take up water from the soil and release large amounts of water vapor into the air through their leaves, a process known as transpiration. NASA has an excellent online animation of the hydrologic cycle.

People also depend on water as a natural resource. Not content to get water directly from streams or ponds, humans create canals, aqueducts, dams, and wells to collect water and direct it to where they want it.

Use United States Global
Agriculture 34 percent 70 percent
Domestic (drinking, bath, etc.) 12 percent 10 percent
Industry 5 percent 20 percent
Power plant cooling 49 percent small

The table above displays water use in the United States and globally (Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2005, USGS). It is important to note that water molecules cycle around. If climate cools and glaciers and ice caps grow, there is less water for the oceans, and sea level will fall. The reverse can also happen.

7.2 Streams and Rivers

Freshwater in streams, ponds, and lakes is an essential part of the hydrologic cycle if only because of its importance to living creatures. Along with wetlands, these freshwater regions contain a tremendous variety of organisms. Streams are bodies of water that consist of a constant motion, called a current. Geologists recognize many categories of streams depending on their size, depth, speed, and location. Creeks, brooks, tributaries, bayous, and rivers might all be lumped together as streams. In streams, water always flows downhill, but the form that downhill movement takes varies with rock type, topography, and many other factors.

Streams and landscape in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Streams are the most important agents of erosion and transportation of sediments on Earth’s surface. They are responsible for the creation of much of the topography that we see around us. They are also places of great beauty and tranquility, and of course, they provide much of the water that is essential to our existence. However, streams are not always peaceful and soothing. During large storms and rapid snowmelts, they can become raging torrents capable of moving cars and houses and destroying roads and bridges. When they spill over their banks, they can flood vast areas, devastating populations, and infrastructure.


There are a variety of different types of streams. A stream originates at its source, such as high mountains where snows collect in winter and melt in summer, or a source might be a spring. A stream may have more than one source, and when two streams come together, it is called a confluence. The smaller of the two streams is a tributary of the larger stream. A stream may create a pool where the water slows and becomes more profound.


Stream source
River tributary along the Mississippi River basin.
Amazon estuary

The point at which a stream comes into a large body of water, like an ocean or a lake, is called the mouth. Where the stream meets the ocean or lake, it is called an estuary. The mix of fresh and salt water where a river runs into the ocean creates a diversity of environments where many different types of organisms create unique ecosystems.


Flowing water is a fundamental mechanism for both erosion and deposition. Water flow in a stream is primarily related to the stream’s gradient, but the geometry of the stream channel also controls it. The water flow velocity is decreased by friction along the stream bed, so it is slowest at the bottom and edges and fastest near the surface and in the middle. The velocity just below the surface is typically a little higher than right at the surface because of friction between the water and the air. On a curved section of a stream, flow is fastest on the outside and slowest on the inside.

Other factors that affect stream-water velocity are the size of sediments on the stream bed – because large particles tend to slow the flow more than small ones – and the discharge, or volume of water passing a point in a unit of time. During a flood, the water level always rises, so there is a more cross-sectional area for the water to flow in; however, as long as a river remains confined to its channel, the velocity of the water flow also increases.

The relative velocity of stream flow depending on whether the stream channel is straight or curved (left), and with respect to the water depth (right).

Large particles rest on the bottom, bedload, and may only be moved during rapid flows under flood conditions. They can be moved by saltation (bouncing) and by traction (being pushed along by the force of the flow). Smaller particles may rest on the bottom some of the time, where they can be moved by saltation and traction, but they can also be held in suspension in the flowing water, especially at higher velocities. As you know from intuition and from experience, streams that flow fast tend to be turbulent (flow paths are chaotic, and the water surface appears rough) and the water may be muddy, while those that flow more slowly tend to have laminar flow (straight-line flow and a smooth water surface) and clear water. Turbulent flow is more effective than laminar flow at keeping sediments in suspension. Stream water also has a dissolved load, which represents roughly 15 percent of the mass of material transported, and includes ions such as calcium and chloride in solution. The solubility of these ions is not affected by flow velocity.

The faster the water is flowing, the larger the particles that can be kept in suspension and transported within the flowing water. However, as Swedish geographer Filip Hjulström discovered in the 1940s, the relationship between grain size and the likelihood of a grain being eroded, transported, or deposited is not as simple as one might imagine. Consider, for example, a 1 mm grain of sand. If it is resting on the bottom, it will remain there until the velocity is high enough to erode it. However, once it is in suspension, that same 1 mm particle will remain in suspension as long as the velocity does not drop below 10 centimeters per second (cm/s.) For a 10 mm gravel grain, the velocity is 105 cm/s to be eroded from the bed but only 80 cm/s to remain in suspension.

On the other hand, a 0.01 mm silt particle only needs a velocity of 0.1 cm/s to remain in suspension, but requires 60 cm/s to be eroded. In other words, a tiny silt grain requires a higher velocity to be eroded than a grain of sand that is 100 times larger. For clay-sized particles, the discrepancy is even more significant. In a stream, the most easily eroded particles are small sand grains between 0.2 mm and 0.5 mm. Anything smaller or larger requires a higher water velocity to be eroded and entrained in the flow. The main reason for this is those small particles, and especially the tiny grains of clay, have a strong tendency to stick together, and so are difficult to erode from the stream bed.

Modes of transportation of sediments and dissolved ions (represented by red dots with + and – signs) in a stream.

It is essential to be aware that a stream can both erode and deposit sediments at the same time. At 100 cm/s, for example, silt, sand, and medium gravel will be eroded from the stream bed and transported in suspension, coarse gravel will be held in suspension, pebbles will be both transported and deposited, and cobbles and boulders will remain stationary on the stream bed.

A stream typically reaches its greatest velocity when it is close to flooding over its banks, known as the bank-full stage. As soon as the flooding stream overtops its banks and occupies the broad area of its flood plain, the water has a much larger area to flow through, and the velocity drops significantly. At this point, sediment that was being carried by the high-velocity water is deposited near the edge of the channel, forming a natural bank or levée.


Stream channels can be straight or curved, deep and slow, or rapid and choked with coarse sediments. The cycle of erosion has some influence on the nature of a stream, but several other factors are essential. Youthful streams that are actively down-cutting their channels tend to be relatively straight and are typically ungraded (meaning that rapids and falls are frequent). Youthful streams commonly have a step-pool morphology, meaning that the stream consists of a series of pools connected by rapids and waterfalls. They also have steep gradients and steep and narrow V-shaped valleys – in some cases steep enough to be called canyons.

V-shaped river canyon

In mountainous terrains, steep youthful streams typically flow into broad and relatively low-gradient U-shaped glaciated valleys. The youthful streams have high sediment loads, and when they flow into the lower-gradient glacial valleys where the velocity is not high enough to carry all of the sediment, braided patterns develop, characterized by a series of narrow channels separated by gravel bars.

U-shaped glacial canyon in Glacial National Park.

Braided streams can develop anywhere there is more sediment than a stream can transport. One such environment is in volcanic regions, where explosive eruptions produce large amounts of unconsolidated material that gets washed into streams. The Coldwater River next to Mt. St. Helens in Washington State is an excellent example of this.

A magnificent braided stream and stream delta showing floral zones in the marine algae at low water. Alaska, Chichagof Island, Deep Bay. Image source: NOAA

A stream that occupies a vast, flat flood plain with a low gradient typically carries only sand-sized and finer sediments and develops a sinuous flow pattern. When a stream flows around a corner, the water on the outside has farther to go and tends to flow faster. This leads to erosion of the banks on the outside of the curve, deposition on the inside, and formation of a point bar. Over time, the sinuosity of the stream becomes increasingly exaggerated, and the channel migrates around within its flood plain, forming a meandering pattern.

The meander in the photo below has reached the point where the thin neck of land between two parts of the channel is about to be eroded through. When this happens, oxbow lake will form. Finally, at the point where a stream enters a still body of water, a lake or the ocean, where sediment is deposited and a delta forms.

Aerial photograph of meandering course of Red River in Lafayette and Miller counties, Arkansas.


Rivers are the largest types of stream, moving large amounts of water from higher to lower elevations. The Amazon River, the world’s river with the greatest flow, has a flow rate of nearly 220,000 cubic meters per second! People have used rivers since the beginning of civilization as a source of water, food, transportation, defense, power, recreation, and waste disposal.

7.3 Divides

A divide is a topographically high area that separates a landscape into different water basins. The rain that falls on the north side of a ridge flows into the northern drainage basin and rain that falls on the south side flows into the southern drainage basin. On a much grander scale, entire continents have divides, known as continental divides.

North American continental divide.

The pattern of tributaries within a drainage basin depends mainly on the type of rock beneath, and on structures within that rock (folds, fractures, faults, etc.). Dendritic patterns, which are by far the most common, develop in areas where the rock (or unconsolidated material) beneath the stream has no particular fabric or structure and can be eroded equally easily in all directions. Examples would be granite, gneiss, volcanic rock, and sedimentary rock that has not been folded. Trellis drainage patterns typically develop where sedimentary rocks have been folded or tilted and then eroded to varying degrees depending on their strength. The Rocky Mountains of B.C. and Alberta are an excellent example of this, and many of the drainage systems within the Rockies have trellis patterns. Rectangular patterns develop in areas that have very little topography and a system of bedding planes, fractures, or faults that form a rectangular network. The fourth type of drainage pattern, which is not specific to a drainage basin, is known as radial. Radial patterns form around isolated mountains (such as volcanoes) or hills, and the individual streams typically have dendritic drainage patterns.

Stream patterns

Over geological time, a stream will erode its drainage basin into a smooth profile similar to that shown. If we compare this with an ungraded stream like Cawston Creek, we can see that graded streams are steepest in their headwaters and their gradient gradually decreases toward their mouths. Ungraded streams have steep sections at various points, and typically have rapids and waterfalls at numerous locations along their lengths.

The ocean is the ultimate base level, but lakes and other rivers act as base levels for many smaller streams. Engineers can create an artificial base level on a stream by constructing a dam.

Sediments accumulate within the flood plain of a stream, and then, if the base level changes, or if there is less sediment to deposit, the stream may cut down through those existing sediments to form terraces.

In the late 19th century, American geologist William Davis proposed that streams and the surrounding terrain develop in a cycle of erosion. Following tectonic uplift, streams erode quickly, developing deep V-shaped valleys that tend to follow relatively straight paths. Gradients are high, and profiles are ungraded. Rapids and waterfalls are common. During the mature stage, streams erode more broad valleys and start to deposit thick sediment layers. Gradients are slowly reduced and grading increases. In old age, streams are surrounded by rolling hills, and they occupy broad sediment-filled valleys. Meandering patterns are common.

Davis’s work was done long before the idea of plate tectonics, and he was not familiar with the impacts of glacial erosion on streams and their environments. While some parts of his theory are out of date, it is still a useful way to understand streams and their evolution.

A depiction of the Davis cycle of erosion: a: initial stage, b: youthful stage, c: mature stage, and d: old age.


Ponds and lakes are bordered by hills or low rises so that the water is blocked from flowing directly downhill. Ponds are small bodies of fresh water that usually have no outlet; ponds are often are fed by underground springs. Lakes are more substantial bodies of water. Lakes are usually fresh water, although the Great Salt Lake in Utah is just one exception. Water usually drains out of a lake through a river or a stream, and all lakes lose water to evaporation.

Large lakes have tidal systems and currents, and can even affect weather patterns. The Great Lakes in the United States contain 22 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. The largest them, Lake Superior, has a tide that rises and falls several centimeters each day. The Great Lakes are large enough to alter the weather system in the Northeastern United States by the “lake effect,” which is an increase in snow downwind of the relatively warm lakes. The Great Lakes are home to countless species of fish and wildlife.

Lakes form in a variety of different ways: in depressions carved by glaciers, in calderas, and along tectonic faults, to name a few. Subglacial lakes are even found below an ice cap. As a result of geologic history and the arrangement of land masses, most lakes are in the Northern Hemisphere.

Limnology is the study of bodies of freshwater and the organisms that live there. The ecosystem of a lake is divided into three distinct sections:

  • Surface (littoral) zone is the sloped area closest to the edge of the water.
  • Open-water zone (also the photic or limnetic zone) has abundant sunlight.
  • Deep-water zone (also the aphotic or profundal zone) has little or no sunlight.

There are several life zones found within a lake. In the littoral zone, sunlight promotes plant growth, which provides food and shelter to animals such as snails, insects, and fish. In the open-water zone, other plants and fish, such as bass and trout, live. The deep-water zone does not have photosynthesis since there is no sunlight. Most deep-water organisms are scavengers, such as crabs and catfish that feed on dead organisms that fall to the bottom of the lake. Fungi and bacteria aid in the decomposition in the deep zone. Though different creatures live in the oceans, ocean waters also have these same divisions based on sunlight with similar types of creatures that live in each of the zones.

Lakes are not permanent features of a landscape. Some come and go with the seasons, as water levels rise and fall. Over a longer time, lakes disappear when they fill with sediments, if the springs or streams that fill them diminish, or if their outlets grow because of erosion. When the climate of an area changes, lakes can either expand or shrink. Lakes may disappear if precipitation significantly diminishes.

7.4 Wetlands

Wetlands near the Moscow region, Russia.

Wetlands are lands that are wet for significant periods. They are common where water and land meet. Wetlands can be large flat areas or relatively small and steep areas. Wetlands are rich and unique ecosystems with many species that rely on both the land and the water for survival. Only specialized plants can grow in these conditions. Wetlands tend to have a great deal of biological diversity. Wetland ecosystems can also be fragile systems that are sensitive to the amounts and quality of water present within them. Learn more about wetlands further from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


There are a variety of different types of wetlands. Marshes are shallow wetlands around lakes, streams, or the ocean where grasses and reeds are common, but trees are not. Frogs, turtles, muskrats, and many varieties of birds are at home in marshes.

Marsh Bride Brook and Coastal Salt Marsh, East Lyme, Connecticut.

A swamp is a wetland with lush trees and vines found in a low-lying area beside slow-moving rivers. Like marshes, they are frequently or always inundated with water. Since the water in a swamp moves slowly, oxygen in the water is often scarce. Swamp plants and animals must be adapted for these low-oxygen conditions. Like marshes, swamps can be fresh water, salt water, or a mixture of both.

Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia.

In an estuary, salt water from the sea mixes with fresh water from a stream or river. These semi-enclosed areas are home to plants and animals that can tolerate the sharp changes in salt content that the constant motion and mixing of waters creates. Estuaries contain brackish water, water that has more salt than freshwater but less than seawater. Because of the rapid changes in salt content, estuaries have many different habitats for plants and animals and extremely high biodiversity.

Sierra Leone River Estuary


As mentioned above, wetlands are home to many different species of organisms. Although they make up only 5 percent of the area of the United States, wetlands contain more than 30 percent of the plant types. Many endangered species live in wetlands, so wetlands are protected from human use. Wetlands also offer protection from storm surges from tropical storm systems like hurricanes and provide safe, hidden protection for hatchlings.

Wetlands also play a critical biological role by removing pollutants from water. For example, they can trap and use fertilizer that has washed off a farmer’s field, and therefore they prevent that fertilizer from contaminating another body of water. Since wetlands naturally purify water, preserving wetlands also help to maintain clean supplies of water.

7.5 Floods

Floods are a natural part of the water cycle, but they can be terrifying forces of destruction. Put most simply; a flood is an overflow of water in one place. Floods can occur for a variety of reasons, and their effects can be minimized in several different ways. Perhaps unsurprisingly, floods tend to affect low-lying areas most severely. Floods usually occur when precipitation falls more quickly than that water can be absorbed into the ground or carried away by rivers or streams. Waters may build up gradually throughout weeks when a long period of rainfall or snow-melt fills the ground with water and raises stream levels.

Flash floods are sudden and unexpected, taking place when very intense rains fall over a very brief period. A flash flood may do its damage miles from where the rain falls if the water travels far down a dry streambed so that the flash flood occurs far from the location of the original storm.

Heavily vegetated lands are less likely to experience flooding. Plants slow down water as it runs over the land, giving it time to enter the ground. Even if the ground is too wet to absorb more water, plants still slow the water’s passage and increase the time between rainfall and the water’s arrival in a stream; this could keep all the water falling over a region to hit the stream at once. Wetlands act as a buffer between land and high water levels and play a key role in minimizing the impacts of floods. Flooding is often more severe in areas that have been recently logged.

When a dam breaks along a reservoir, flooding can be catastrophic. High water levels have also caused small dams to break, wreaking havoc downstream. People try to protect areas that might flood with dams, and dams are usually very effective. People may also line a river bank with levees, high walls that keep the stream within its banks during floods. A levee in one location may force the high water up or downstream and cause flooding there. The New Madrid Overflow in the image above was created with the recognition that the Mississippi River sometimes cannot be contained by levees and must be allowed to flood.

Not all the consequences of flooding are negative. Rivers deposit new nutrient-rich sediments when they flood, and so floodplains have traditionally been suitable for farming. Flooding as a source of nutrients was essential to Egyptians along the Nile River until the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s. Although the dam protects crops and settlements from the annual floods, farmers must now use fertilizers to feed their crops.

Floods are also responsible for moving large amounts of sediments about within streams. These sediments provide habitats for animals, and the periodic movement of sediment is crucial to the lives of several types of organisms. Plants and fish along the Colorado River, for example, depend on seasonal flooding to rearrange sand bars.

7.6 Groundwater

Ground-water flow paths vary greatly in length, depth, and traveltime from points of recharge to points of discharge in the groundwater system.

Groundwater is stored in the open spaces within rocks and within unconsolidated sediments. Rocks and sediments near the surface are under less pressure than those at significant depth and therefore tend to have more open space. For this reason, and because it is expensive to drill deep wells, most of the groundwater that is accessed by individual users is within the first 100 m of the surface. Some municipal, agricultural, and industrial groundwater users get their water from greater depth, but deeper groundwater tends to be of lower quality than shallow groundwater, so there is a limit as to how deep we can go.

Porosity is the percentage of open space within unconsolidated sediment or a rock. Primary porosity is represented by the spaces between grains in a sediment or sedimentary rock. Secondary porosity is porosity that has developed after the rock has formed. It can include fracture porosity, space within fractures in any rock. Some volcanic rock has a particular type of porosity related to vesicles, and some limestone has increased porosity related to cavities within fossils.

Porosity is expressed as a percentage calculated from the volume of open space in a rock compared with the total volume of rock. Unconsolidated sediments tend to have higher porosity than consolidated ones because they have no cement, and most have not been strongly compressed. Finer-grained materials (e.g., silt and clay) tend to have greater porosity, some as high as 70 percent, than coarser materials (e.g., gravel). Primary porosity tends to be higher in well-sorted sediments compared to poorly sorted sediments, where there is a range of smaller particles to fill the spaces made by the larger particles. Glacial till, which has a wide range of grain sizes and is typically formed under compression beneath glacial ice, has relatively low porosity.

Meltwater river emerging from the terminus of the Fox glacier. Large glacial erratic in foreground.

Consolidation and cementation during the process of lithification of unconsolidated sediments into sedimentary rocks reduces primary porosity. Sedimentary rocks generally have porosities in the range of 10 percent to 30 percent, some of which may be secondary (fracture) porosity. The grain size, sorting, compaction, and degree of cementation of the rocks all primary influence porosity. For example, poorly sorted and well-cemented sandstone and well-compressed mudstone can have very low porosity. Igneous or metamorphic rocks have the lowest primary porosity because they commonly form at depth and have interlocking crystals. Most of their porosity comes in the form of secondary porosity in fractures. Of the consolidated rocks, well-fractured volcanic rocks and limestone that has cavernous openings produced by dissolution have the highest potential porosity, while intrusive igneous and metamorphic rocks, which formed under enormous pressure, have the lowest. Porosity is a measure of how much water can be stored in geological materials. Almost all rocks contain some porosity and therefore contain groundwater. Groundwater is found under the ground and everywhere on the planet. Considering that sedimentary rocks and unconsolidated sediments cover about 75 percent of the continental crust with an average thickness of a few hundred meters and that they are likely to have around 20 percent porosity on average, it is easy to see that a considerable volume of water can be stored in the ground.

Porosity is a description of how much space there could be to hold water under the ground, and permeability describes how those pores are shaped and interconnected. This determines how easy it is for water to flow from one pore to the next. Larger pores mean there is less friction between flowing water and the sides of the pores. Smaller pores mean more friction along pore walls, but also more twists and turns for the water to have to flow-through. A permeable material has a more significant number of larger, well-connected pores spaces, whereas an impermeable material has fewer, smaller pores that are poorly connected. Permeability is the most important variable in groundwater. Permeability describes how easily water can flow through the rock or unconsolidated sediment and how easy it will be to extract the water for our purposes. The characteristic of permeability of a geological material is quantified by geoscientists and engineers using some different units, but the most common is the hydraulic conductivity. The symbol used for hydraulic conductivity is K. Although hydraulic conductivity can be expressed in a range of different units, in this book, we will always use m/s.

Unconsolidated materials are generally more permeable than the corresponding rocks (compare sand with sandstone, for example), and the coarser materials are much more permeable than, the finer ones. The least permeable rocks are unfractured intrusive igneous and metamorphic rocks, followed by unfractured mudstone, sandstone, and limestone. The permeability of sandstone can vary widely depending on the degree of sorting and the amount of cement that is present. Fractured igneous and metamorphic rocks, and especially fractured volcanic rocks can be highly permeable, as can limestone that has been dissolved along fractures and bedding planes to create solutional openings. Both sand and clay deposits (and sandstone and mudstone) are quite porous (30 percent to 50 percent for sand and 40 percent to 70 percent for silt and clay), but while sand can be quite permeable, clay and mudstone are not.

We have now seen that there is a wide range of porosity in geological materials and an even wider range of permeability. Groundwater exists everywhere there is porosity. However, whether groundwater can flow in significant quantities depends on the permeability. An aquifer is defined as a body of rock or unconsolidated sediment that has sufficient permeability to allow water to flow through it. Unconsolidated materials like gravel, sand, and even silt make relatively good aquifers, as do rocks like sandstone. Other rocks can be good aquifers if they are well fractured. An aquitard is a body that does not allow transmission of a significant amount of water, such as a clay, a till, or a poorly fractured igneous or metamorphic rock. These are relative terms, not absolute, and are usually defined based on someone’s desire to pump groundwater; what is an aquifer to someone who does not need much water, may be an aquitard to someone else who does. An aquifer that is exposed at the ground surface is called an unconfined aquifer. An aquifer where there is a lower permeability material between the aquifer and the ground surface is known as a confined aquifer, and the aquitard separating ground surface, and the aquifer is known as the confining layer.

If a person were to go out into their garden or a forest or a park and start digging, they would find that the soil is moist (unless you are in a desert), but it’s not saturated with water. This means that some of the pore space in the soil is occupied by water, and some of the pore space is occupied by air (unless you are in a swamp). This is known as the unsaturated zone. If a person were to dig down far enough, they would get to the point where all of the pore spaces are 100 percent filled with water (saturated), and the bottom of your hole would fill up with water. The level of water in the hole represents the water table, which is the surface of the saturated zone.

Water falling on the ground surface as precipitation (rain, snow, hail, fog, etc.) may flow off a hill slope directly to a stream in the form of runoff, or it may infiltrate the ground, where it is stored in the unsaturated zone. The water in the unsaturated zone may be used by plants (transpiration), evaporate from the soil (evaporation), or continue past the root zone and flow downward to the water table, where it recharges the groundwater.

In areas with topographic relief, the water table generally follows the land surface, but tends to come closer to surface in valleys, and intersects the surface where there are streams or lakes. The water table can be determined from the depth of water in a well that is not being pumped, although, that only applies if the well is within an unconfined aquifer. In this case, most of the hillside forms the recharge area, where water from precipitation flows downward through the unsaturated zone to reach the water table. The area at the stream or lake to which the groundwater is flowing is a discharge area.

What makes water flow from the recharge areas to the discharge areas? Recall that water is flowing in pores where there is friction, which means it takes work to move the water. There is also some friction between water molecules themselves, which is determined by the viscosity. Water has a low viscosity, but friction is still a factor. All flowing fluids are always losing energy to friction with their surroundings. Water will flow from areas with high energy to those with low energy. Recharge areas are at higher elevations, where the water has high gravitational energy. It was energy from the sun that evaporated the water into the atmosphere and lifted it to the recharge area. The water loses this gravitational energy as it flows from the recharge area to the discharge area.

The situation gets a lot more complicated in the case of confined aquifers, but they are essential sources of water, so we need to understand how they work. There is always a water table, and that applies even if the geological materials at the surface have very low permeability. Where there is a confined aquifer, meaning one that is separated from the surface by a confining layer, this aquifer will have its own “water table,” which is called a potentiometric surface, as it is a measure of the total potential energy of the water. However, if we drill a well through both the unconfined aquifer and the confining layer and into the confined aquifer, the water will rise above the top of the confined aquifer to the level of its potentiometric surface. This is known as an artesian well because the water rises above the top of the aquifer. In some situations, the potentiometric surface may be above the ground level. The water in a well drilled into the confined aquifer in this situation would rise above ground level, and flow out if it’s not capped. This is known as a flowing artesian well.

Diagram of an artesian well.

It is critical to understand that groundwater does not flow in underground streams, nor does it form underground lakes. Except karst areas, with caves in limestone, groundwater flows very slowly through granular sediments, or through solid rock that has fractures in it. Flow velocities of several centimeters per day are possible in significantly permeable sediments with significant hydraulic gradients. However, in many cases, permeabilities are lower than the ones we have used as examples here, and in many areas, gradients are much lower. It is not uncommon for groundwater to flow at velocities of a few millimeters to a few centimeters per year.

As already noted, groundwater does not flow in straight lines. It flows from areas of higher hydraulic head to areas of lower hydraulic head, and this means that it can flow “uphill” in many situations. Groundwater flows at right angles to the equipotential lines in the same way that water flowing down a slope w ould flow at right angles to the contour lines. The stream in this scenario is the location with the lowest hydraulic potential, so the groundwater that flows to the lower parts of the aquifer has to flow upward to reach this location. It is forced upward by the pressure differences, for example, the difference between the 112 and 110 equipotential lines.

Groundwater that flows through caves, including those in karst areas, where caves have been formed in limestone because of dissolution, behaves differently from groundwater in other situations. Caves above the water table are air-filled conduits, and the water that flows within these conduits is not under pressure; it responds only to gravity. In other words, it flows downhill along the gradient of the cave floor. Many limestone caves also extend below the water table and into the saturated zone. Here water behaves in a similar way to any other groundwater, and it flows according to the hydraulic gradient.


For a groundwater aquifer to contain the same amount of water, the amount of recharge must equal the amount of discharge. In wet regions, streams are fed by groundwater; the surface of the stream is the top of the water table. In dry regions, water seeps down from the stream into the aquifer. These streams are often dry much of the year. Water leaves a groundwater reservoir in streams or springs. People take water from aquifers, too.

Although groundwater levels do not rise and fall as rapidly as at the surface, over time the water table will rise during wet periods and fall during droughts. One of the most interesting, but extremely atypical types of aquifers are found in Florida. Although aquifers are very rarely underground rivers, in Florida water has dissolved the limestone so that streams travel underground and aboveground.


Groundwater is a significant water source for people. Groundwater can be a renewable resource, as long as when the water pumped from the aquifer is replenished. It is essential for anyone who intends to dig a well to know how deep beneath the surface the water table is. Because groundwater involves interaction between the Earth and the water, the study of groundwater is called hydrogeology. Some aquifers are overused; people pump out more water than is replaced. As the water is pumped out, the water table slowly falls, requiring wells to be dug deeper, which takes more money and energy. Wells may go completely dry if they are not deep enough to reach into the lowered water table.

The Ogallala Aquifer supplies about one-third of the irrigation water in the United States. The aquifer is found from 30 to 100 meters deep over about 440,000 square kilometers! The water in the aquifer is mostly from the last ice age. The Ogallala Aquifer is widely used by people for municipal and agricultural needs. About eight times more water is taken from the Ogallala Aquifer each year than is replenished. Much of the water is used for irrigation of crops in the Bread Basket of the central plains. Currently, there is great concern about the long-term health of this vast aquifer because it is being tapped into and used at a higher rate than being replenished by natural processes. This could have huge implications in regards to food production in the country if this critical water source is depleted. At current rates of use, 70 percent of the aquifer could be gone by 2050. Click here to learn more.

This map shows the estimated fresh water usage per square mile in the year 2000 for counties in the eight states underlain in part by the High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer, presented as million gallons per square mile and million liters per square kilometer.

Overuse and lowering of the water tables of aquifers could have other impacts as well. Lowering the water table may cause the ground surface to sink. Subsidence may occur beneath houses and other structures. When coastal aquifers are overused, salt water from the ocean may enter the aquifer, contaminating the aquifer and making it less useful for drinking and irrigation. Saltwater incursion is a problem in developed coastal regions, such as on Hawaii.


Groundwater meets the surface in a stream or a spring. A spring may be constant, or may only flow at certain times of the year. Towns in many locations depend on water that from springs. Springs can also be a vital source of water in locations where surface water is scarce.

A well is created by digging or drilling to reach groundwater. When the water table is close to the surface, wells are a convenient method for extracting water. When the water table is far below the surface, specialized equipment must be used to dig a well. Most wells use motorized pumps to bring water to the surface, but some still require people to use a bucket to draw water up.

Finally, it is also essential to understand how water is cleaned, filtered, and delivered to our homes and work. To many of us do not know where our water comes from and we take it for granted. This often leads to wasteful water use of our lawns, showers, and other appliances.


One of the good things about groundwater as a source of water is that it is not as easily contaminated as surface water is. However, there are two caveats to that: one is that groundwater can become naturally contaminated because of its very close connection to the materials of its aquifer, and the second is that once contaminated by human activities, groundwater is very difficult to clean up.

Natural Contamination of Groundwater

Groundwater moves slowly through an aquifer, and unlike the surface water of a stream, it has many contacts with the surrounding rock or sediment. In most aquifers, the geological materials that make up the aquifer are relatively inert or are made up of minerals that dissolve very slowly into the groundwater. Over time, however, all groundwater gradually has more and more material dissolved within it as it remains in contact with the aquifer. In some areas, that rock or sediment includes some minerals that could potentially contaminate the water with elements that might make the water less than ideal for human consumption or agricultural use. Examples include copper, arsenic, mercury, fluorine, sodium, and boron. In some cases, contamination may occur because the aquifer material has unusually high levels of the element in question. In other cases, the aquifer material is just natural rock or sediment, but some particular feature of the water or the aquifer allows the contaminant to build up to significant levels.

Rural residents in the densely populated country of Bangladesh (over 1,000 residents/km2, compared with 3.4/km2 in Canada) used to rely mostly on surface supplies for their drinking water, and many of these were subject to bacterial contamination. Infant mortality rates were among the highest in the world and other illnesses such as diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis was common. In the 1970s, international agencies, including UNICEF, started a program of drilling wells to access abundant groundwater supplies at depths of 20 m to 100 m. Eventually, over 8 million such wells were drilled. Infant mortality and illness rates dropped dramatically, but it was later discovered that the water from a high proportion of these wells has arsenic above safe levels.

Most of the wells in the affected areas are drilled into relatively recent sediments of the vast delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. While these sediments are not particularly enriched in arsenic, they have enough organic matter in them to use up any oxygen present. This leads to water with a naturally low oxidation potential (anoxic conditions); arsenic is highly soluble under these conditions, and so any arsenic present in the sediments easily gets dissolved into the groundwater. Arsenic poisoning leads to headaches, confusion, and diarrhea, and eventually to vomiting, stomach pain, and convulsions. If not treated, the outcomes are heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, coma, and death. There are ways to treat arsenic-rich groundwater, but it is a challenge in Bangladesh to implement the simple and effective technology that is available.

Anthropogenic Contamination of Groundwater

Groundwater can become contaminated by pollution at the surface (or at depth), and there are many different anthropogenic (human-caused) sources of contamination. The vulnerability of aquifers to pollution depends on several factors, including the depth to the water table, the permeability of the material between the surface and the aquifer, the permeability of the aquifer, the slope of the surface, and the amount of precipitation. Confined aquifers tend to be much less vulnerable than unconfined ones, and deeper aquifers are less vulnerable than shallow ones. Steeper slopes mean that surface water tends to run off rather than infiltrate (and this can reduce the possibility of contamination). Contamination risk is also less in dry areas than in areas with heavy rainfall.

NASA ASTER image of a roughly 557 square miles of fields (1443 km2) in Kansas watered from the Ogallala Aquifer with center pivot irrigation systems.

The principal sources of anthropogenic groundwater contamination include the following:

  • Chemicals and animal waste related to agriculture, and chemicals applied to golf courses and domestic gardens
  • Agriculture
  • Landfills
  • Industrial operations
  • Mines, quarries, and other rock excavations
  • Leaking fuel storage tanks (especially those at gas stations)
  • Septic systems
  • Runoff from roads (e.g., winter salting) or chemical spills of materials being transported


In the past, domestic and commercial refuse was commonly trucked to a “dump” (typically a hole in the ground), and when the hole was filled, it was covered with soil and forgotten. In situations like this, rain and melting snow can easily pass through the soil used to cover the refuse. This water passes into the waste itself, and the resulting landfill leachate that flows from the bottom of the landfill can seriously contaminate the surrounding groundwater and surface water. In the past few decades, regulations around refuse disposal have been significantly strengthened, and significant steps have been taken to reduce the amount of landfill waste by diverting recyclable and compostable materials to other locations.

A modern engineered landfill has an impermeable liner (typically heavy plastic, although engineered clay liners or natural clay may be adequate in some cases), a plumbing system for draining leachate (the rainwater that flows through the refuse and becomes contaminated), and a network of monitoring wells both within and around the landfill. Once a part or all of a landfill site is full, it is sealed over with a plastic cover, and a system is put in place to extract landfill gas (typically a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane). That gas can be sent to a nearby location where it is burned to create heat or used to generate electricity. The leachate must be treated, and that can be done in a typical sewage treatment plant.

The monitoring wells are used to assess the level of the water table around the landfill and to collect groundwater samples so that any leakage can be detected. Because some leakage is almost inevitable, the ideal placement for landfills is in areas where the depth to the water table is significant (tens of meters if possible) and where the aquifer material is relatively impermeable. Landfills should also be situated far from streams, lakes, or wetlands so that contamination of aquatic habitats can be avoided.

Today there are hundreds of abandoned dumps scattered across the country; most have been left to contaminate groundwater that we might wish to use sometime in the future. In many cases, it is unlikely that we will be able to do so.

Mines, Quarries, and Rock Excavations

Mines and other operations that involve the excavation of large amounts of rock (e.g., highway construction) have the potential to create severe environmental damage. The exposure of rock that has previously not been exposed to air and water can lead to the oxidation of sulfide-bearing minerals, such a pyrite, within the rock. The combination of pyrite, water, oxygen, and a particular type of bacteria (Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans) that thrives in acidic conditions leads to the generation of acidity, in some cases to pH less than 2. Water that acidic is hazardous by itself, but the low pH also has the property of increasing the solubility of certain heavy metals. The water that is generated by this process is known as acid rock drainage (ARD). ARD can occur naturally where sulfide-bearing rocks are near the surface. The issue of ARD is a major environmental concern at both operating mines and abandoned mines. Groundwater adjacent to the contaminated streams in the area is very likely contaminated as well.

Leaking Fuel Tanks

Underground storage tanks (USTs) are used to store fuel at gas stations, industrial sites, airports, and anywhere that large volumes of fuel are used. They do not last forever, and eventually, they start to leak their contents into the ground. This is a particular problem at older gas stations, although it may also become a future problem at newer gas stations. Sometimes a gas station can be seen that is closed and surrounded by a chain-link fence. In virtually all such cases the closure has been triggered by the discovery of leaking USTs and the requirement to cease operations and remediate the site.

Petroleum fuels are complex mixtures of hydrocarbon compounds and the properties of their components – such as density, viscosity, solubility in water, and volatility – tend to vary widely. As a result, a petroleum spill is like several spills for the price of one. The petroleum liquid slowly settles through the unsaturated zone and then tends to float on the surface of the groundwater. The more readily soluble components of the spill dissolve in the groundwater and are dispersed along with the normal groundwater flow, and the more volatile components of the spill rise toward the surface, potentially contaminating buildings.


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Introduction to Physical Geography by R. Adam Dastrup is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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