The USGS Water Science School
Parts of the Water Cycle
Explore the Water Cycle
The Water Cycle: Infiltration
Groundwater begins as precipitation
Surface water becoming groundwater, Russell Cave, Alabama
Anywhere in the world, a portion of the water that falls as rain and snow infiltrates into the subsurface soil and rock. How much infiltrates depends greatly on a number of factors. Infiltration of precipitation falling on the ice cap of Greenland might be very small, whereas, as this picture of a stream disappearing into a cave in southern Georgia, USA shows, a stream can act as a direct funnel right into groundwater!
Some water that infiltrates will remain in the shallow soil layer, where it will gradually move vertically and horizontally through the soil and subsurface material. Eventually, it might enter a stream by seepage into the stream bank. Some of the water may infiltrate deeper, recharging groundwater aquifers. If the aquifers are porous enough to allow water to move freely through it, people can drill wells into the aquifer and use the water for their purposes. Water may travel long distances or remain in groundwater storage for long periods before returning to the surface or seeping into other water bodies, such as streams and the oceans.
Factors affecting infiltration
A future hydrologist studying groundwater infiltration. Fido assists by making depressions in the ground to demonstrate how sinkholes can accumulate water if they reach down past the water table.
As precipitation infiltrates into the subsurface soil, it generally forms an unsaturated zone and a saturated zone. In the unsaturated zone, the voids—that is, the spaces between grains of gravel, sand, silt, clay, and cracks within rocks—contain both air and water. Although a lot of water can be present in the unsaturated zone, this water cannot be pumped by wells because it is held too tightly by capillary forces. The upper part of the unsaturated zone is the soil-water zone. The soil zone is crisscrossed by roots, openings left by decayed roots, and animal and worm burrows, which allow the precipitation to infiltrate into the soil zone. Water in the soil is used by plants in life functions and leaf transpiration, but it also can evaporate directly to the atmosphere. Below the unsaturated zone is a saturated zone where water completely fills the voids between rock and soil particles.
Infiltration replenishes aquifers
Natural refilling of deep aquifers is a slow process because groundwater 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 such as those in the coastal plain in south Georgia, USA, may be replenished almost immediately.
Artificial recharge gives natural infiltration a push
People all over the world make great use of the water in underground aquifers all over the world. In fact, in some places, they pump water out of the aquifer faster than nature replenishes it. In these cases, the water table, below which the soil is saturated and possibly able to yield enough water that can be pumped to the surface, can be lowered by the excessive pumping. Wells can "go dry" and become useless.
Large volumes of reclaimed water, which has undergone advanced secondary treatment, are reused through land-based applications in a 40-square-mile area near Orlando, Florida.
In places where the water table is close to the land surface and where water can move through the aquifer at a high rate, aquifers can be replenished artificially. For example, large volumes of groundwater 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:
This picture shows rapid infiltration basins (photograph courtesy of Water Conserv II facility, Orlando, Florida) in Orlando, Florida. The water put into these basins recharges the shallow surficial aquifer and is used to irrigate local citrus crop fields.
Natural and artificial recharge of groundwater
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