Planning and Development - Division of Water Resources

Groundwater and Surface Water Education

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Groundwater Basics

tn_gwa1_1 This sequence of illustrations and explanations is reproduced from "What Is Groundwater?" a bulletin prepared by Dr. Lyle S. Raymond, Jr., and published by New York State Water Resources Institute, Cornell University. This tutorial will help explain the nature of groundwater, including its source, movement, and behavior.     

Where Groundwater Comes From

tn_gwa2_1Groundwater begins with rain and snow melt that seeps or infiltrates into the ground. The amount of water that seeps into the ground varies widely from place to place according to the type of land surface that is present. In porous surface material that water readily seeps through, such as sand or gravel, 40 to 50 percent of the rain and snow melt may seep into the ground. Seepage into less porous surface material may range from 5 to 20 percent. The remainder of the rain and snow melt runs off the land surface into streams or returns to the atmosphere by evaporation. Seepage into the ground is also strongly influenced by the season of the year. Evaporation is greater during the warm months, including evaporation through plant leaves, known as transpiration. During the cold months, the ground may be frozen, hindering water seepage, and evaporation is less.

The Saturated Zone

tn_gwa3_1Rain and snow melt that seeps into the ground continues downward under the force of gravity until it reaches a depth where water fills all of the openings (pores) in the soil or rock. This is called the saturated zone. The saturated zone typically includes numerous water-filled crevices in the upper layer of bedrock. Deeper bedrock layers may have few or no crevices where water can penetrate.

The Water Table

tn_gwa4_1The top of the saturated zone is called the water table. The water table rises and falls according to the season of the year and the amount of rain and snow melt that occurs. It is typically higher in early spring and lower in late summer. Heavy rainfall or drought conditions may cause changes in the typical pattern, however.

The Unsaturated Zone

tn_gwa5A zone is usually present between the water table and the land surface where the openings, or pores, in the soil are only partially filled with water. This is the unsaturated zone. Water seeps downward through it to the water table below. Plant roots can capture the moisture passing through this zone, but it cannot provide water for wells.


gwa6Permeability is a measure of how fast water will flow through connected openings in soil or rock. Low permeability refers to soil or rock that restricts the movement of water through it . The specific yield is the actual amount of water that will drain out of saturated soil and rock by gravity flow. It does not drain out completely because some water forms a film that clings to soil and rock. Permeability is critical for water supply purposes; if contained in soil or rock will not drain out, it is not available to water wells.


gwa7The capacity of soil or rock to hold water is called porosity. Saturated sand contains about 20% water; gravel, 25%; and clay, 48%. Saturated bedrock with few crevices commonly contains less than 1% water. Clay is not a good water source despite its high water content, or porosity, because the extremely small size of the openings between microscopic particles creates friction that effectively halts water movement. Saturated clay is virtually impermeable.


tn_gwa8A water -bearing soil or rock formation that is capable of yielding usable amounts of water is called an aquifer. Mixed clay, sand, gravel, and fine particles that were deposited by continental glaciers (glacial till) yield low amounts of water. Materials sorted into distinct layers will yield high amounts of water from coarse-grained sand and gravel, but low amounts from fine-grained sand, silt or clay. Bedrock aquifers will yield substantial amounts of water if there are large openings or cracks, but small amounts if there are few openings.


tn_gwa9Water seeping into an aquifer is known as recharge. This takes place intermittently during and immediately following periods of rain and snow-melt. Recharge occurs where permeable soil or rock allows water to readily seep into the ground. These areas are known as recharge areas. Permeable soil or rock formations where recharge occurs may occupy only a very small area or extend over many square miles. Valley aquifers may also receive recharge from hillside runoff or streams that flow down from hillsides in addition to the rain and snow that falls directly onto the land surface overlying the aquifer.

Confined or Artesian Aquifer

tn_gwa10Groundwater that becomes trapped under impermeable soil or rock may be under pressure. This is called a confined or artesian aquifer. A well that pierces a confined aquifer is known as an artesian well. Water pressure in the confined aquifer will cause water in the well to rise above the aquifer level. The maximum level that the water in the well will rise to is known as the potentiometric surface, or potential water level. If this is higher than the top of the well, the well will overflow.

Unconfined or Water Table Aquifer

gwa11Aquifers that are not confined under pressure are called unconfined or water table aquifers. The water level in a well is the same as the water table outside the well.

Groundwater Discharge Points

tn_gwa12Groundwater enters the ground in recharge areas and leaves the ground at discharge points. Discharge is continuous, as long as sufficient water is present above the discharge point. Discharge points typically occur as seepage into wet-lands, lakes and streams. Springs are visible discharge points at the land surface. If the water table is close to the land surface during the growing season, large amounts of groundwater may be withdrawn by plant transpiration.

Groundwater Flow Rates

tn_gwa13Groundwater moves very slowly from recharge areas to discharge points. Flow rates in aquifers are typically measured in feet per day. Flow rates are much faster where large rock openings or crevices exist (often in limestone) and in loose soil, such as coarse gravel. It may take years, decades or even centuries for groundwater to move long distances through some aquifers. However, ground-water may take only a few days or weeks to move for a short distance through loose soil. Groundwater typically moves in parallel paths (i.e., layers) with little mixing, due to the slow movement of groundwater, which does not create sufficient turbulence to cause mixing to occur. This becomes an important factor in the location and movement of contaminants that enter the groundwater.

Gaining Streams

tn_gwa14Streams that receive groundwater discharges are gaining streams. The level of water in the stream is the water table level for the adjacent aquifer. This is also true for lakes and wetlands that receive groundwater discharges. More than half of the total flow of some streams during dry periods may be from groundwater discharge.

Wells: Cone of Depression

tn_gwa15Pumping from wells lowers the water table near a well. This known as the cone of depression. The land surface overlying the cone of depression is also referred to as the area of influence. Groundwater flow is diverted towards the well as it flows into the depression cone.

Wells: Induced Recharge

tn_gwa16The cone of depression from a pumping well may extend to a nearby stream or lake. This lowers the adjacent water table below the steam or lake level. As a result, the stream or lake begins to lose water to the adjacent groundwater aquifer in the vicinity of the well. This is known as induced recharge. Streams and wetlands have been completely dried up by induced recharge from well pumping.

Well Contribution Zone

tn_gwa17A groundwater recharge area that is the source of water for a well is known as the contribution zone or catchment area. This may include only a portion of a larger aquifer recharge area. The area of influence due to well pumping, that overlies the cone of depression, may extend beyond the contribution zone. Induced recharge from well pumping causes groundwater to flow towards the well that would not normally contribute water to a well.

Groundwater Drainage Area

tn_gwa18Groundwater in unconfined aquifers, that do not have impermeable soil or rock layers between the aquifer and the land surface, usually flows into the same stream drainage basin where it is located. Confined or artesian aquifers, which exist at greater depth, may be part of a regional groundwater flow system that may not correspond with the surface drainage.

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