Groundwater is the water present beneath Earth's surface in rock and soil pore spaces and in the fractures of rock formations. About 30 percent of all readily available freshwater in the world is groundwater. A unit of rock or an unconsolidated deposit is called an aquifer when it can yield a usable quantity of water. The depth at which soil pore spaces or fractures and voids in rock become completely saturated with water is called the water table. Groundwater is recharged from the surface; it may discharge from the surface naturally at springs and seeps, and can form oases or wetlands. Groundwater is also often withdrawn for agricultural, municipal, and industrial use by constructing and operating extraction wells. The study of the distribution and movement of groundwater is hydrogeology, also called groundwater hydrology.
Typically, groundwater is thought of as water flowing through shallow aquifers, but, in the technical sense, it can also contain soil moisture, permafrost (frozen soil), immobile water in very low permeability bedrock, and deep geothermal or oil formation water. Groundwater is hypothesized to provide lubrication that can possibly influence the movement of faults. It is likely that much of Earth's subsurface contains some water, which may be mixed with other fluids in some instances.
Groundwater is often cheaper, more convenient and less vulnerable to pollution than surface water. Therefore, it is commonly used for public water supplies. For example, groundwater provides the largest source of usable water storage in the United States, and California annually withdraws the largest amount of groundwater of all the states. Underground reservoirs contain far more water than the capacity of all surface reservoirs and lakes in the US, including the Great Lakes. Many municipal water supplies are derived solely from groundwater. Over 2 billion people rely on it as their primary water source worldwide.
Use of groundwater has related environmental issues. For example, polluted groundwater is less visible and more difficult to clean up than pollution in rivers and lakes. Groundwater pollution most often results from improper disposal of wastes on land. Major sources include industrial and household chemicals and garbage landfills, excessive fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture, industrial waste lagoons, tailings and process wastewater from mines, industrial fracking, oil field brine pits, leaking underground oil storage tanks and pipelines, sewage sludge and septic systems. Additionally, groundwater is susceptible to saltwater intrusion in coastal areas and can cause land subsidence when extracted unsustainably, leading to sinking cities (like Bangkok)) and loss in elevation (such as the multiple meters lost in the Central Valley of California). These issues are made more complicated by sea level rise and other changes caused by climate changes which will affect the water cycle.
Groundwater is fresh water located in the subsurface pore space of soil and rocks. It is also water that is flowing within aquifers below the water table. Sometimes it is useful to make a distinction between groundwater that is closely associated with surface water and deep groundwater in an aquifer (sometimes called "fossil water").
Groundwater can be thought of in the same terms as surface water: inputs, outputs and storage. The natural input to groundwater is seepage from surface water. The natural outputs from groundwater are springs and seepage to the oceans. Due to its slow rate of turnover, groundwater storage is generally much larger (in volume) compared to inputs than it is for surface water. This difference makes it easy for humans to use groundwater unsustainable for a long time without severe consequences. Nevertheless, over the long term the average rate of seepage above a groundwater source is the upper bound for average consumption of water from that source.
Groundwater makes up about thirty percent of the world's fresh water supply, which is about 0.76% of the entire world's water, including oceans and permanent ice. About 99% of the world's liquid fresh water is ground water. Global groundwater storage is roughly equal to the total amount of freshwater stored in the snow and ice pack, including the north and south poles. This makes it an important resource that can act as a natural storage that can buffer against shortages of surface water, as in during times of drought.
Groundwater can be a long-term 'reservoir' of the natural water cycle (with residence times from days to millennia), as opposed to short-term water reservoirs like the atmosphere and fresh surface water (which have residence times from minutes to years). Deep groundwater (which is quite distant from the surface recharge) can take a very long time to complete its natural cycle.
The Great Artesian Basin in central and eastern Australia is one of the largest confined aquifer systems in the world, extending for almost 2 million km2. By analysing the trace elements in water sourced from deep underground, hydrogeologists have been able to determine that water extracted from these aquifers can be more than 1 million years old.
By comparing the age of groundwater obtained from different parts of the Great Artesian Basin, hydrogeologists have found it increases in age across the basin. Where water recharges the aquifers along the Eastern Divide, ages are young. As groundwater flows westward across the continent, it increases in age, with the oldest groundwater occurring in the western parts. This means that in order to have travelled almost 1000 km from the source of recharge in 1 million years, the groundwater flowing through the Great Artesian Basin travels at an average rate of about 1 metre per year.
Recent research has demonstrated that evaporation of groundwater can play a significant role in the local water cycle, especially in arid regions. Scientists in Saudi Arabia have proposed plans to recapture and recycle this evaporative moisture for crop irrigation. In the opposite photo, a 50-centimeter-square reflective carpet, made of small adjacent plastic cones, was placed in a plant-free dry desert area for five months, without rain or irrigation. It managed to capture and condense enough ground vapor to bring to life naturally buried seeds underneath it, with a green area of about 10% of the carpet area. It is expected that, if seeds were put down before placing this carpet, a much wider area would become green.
The high specific heat capacity of water and the insulating effect of soil and rock can mitigate the effects of climate and maintain groundwater at a relatively steady temperature. In some places where groundwater temperatures are maintained by this effect at about 10 °C (50 °F), groundwater can be used for controlling the temperature inside structures at the surface. For example, during hot weather relatively cool groundwater can be pumped through radiators in a home and then returned to the ground in another well. During cold seasons, because it is relatively warm, the water can be used in the same way as a source of heat for heat pumps that is much more efficient than using air.
The volume of groundwater in an aquifer can be estimated by measuring water levels in local wells and by examining geologic records from well-drilling to determine the extent, depth and thickness of water-bearing sediments and rocks. Before an investment is made in production wells, test wells may be drilled to measure the depths at which water is encountered and collect samples of soils, rock and water for laboratory analyses. Pumping tests can be performed in test wells to determine flow characteristics of the aquifer.
The characteristics of aquifers vary with the geology and structure of the substrate and topography in which they occur. In general, the more productive aquifers occur in sedimentary geologic formations. By comparison, weathered and fractured crystalline rocks yield smaller quantities of groundwater in many environments. Unconsolidated to poorly cemented alluvial materials that have accumulated as valley-filling sediments in major river valleys and geologically subsiding structural basins are included among the most productive sources of groundwater.
Most land areas on Earth have some form of aquifer underlying them, sometimes at significant depths. In some cases, these aquifers are rapidly being depleted by the human population.
Of all natural resources, groundwater is the most extracted resource in the world. As of 2010, the top five countries by volume of groundwater extraction were India, China, the US, Pakistan, and Iran. A majority of extracted groundwater, 70%, is used for agricultural purposes. Groundwater is the most accessed source of freshwater around the world, including as drinking water, irrigation, and manufacturing. Groundwater accounts for about half of the world's drinking water, 40% of its irrigation water, and a third of water for industrial purposes.
Fresh-water aquifers, especially those with limited recharge by snow or rain, also known as meteoric water, can be over-exploited and depending on the local hydrogeology, may draw in non-potable water or saltwater intrusion from hydraulically connected aquifers or surface water bodies. This can be a serious problem, especially in coastal areas and other areas where aquifer pumping is excessive. In some areas, the ground water can become contaminated by arsenic and other mineral poisons.
Aquifers are critically important in human habitation and agriculture. Deep aquifers in arid areas have long been water sources for irrigation (see Ogallala below). Many villages and even large cities draw their water supply from wells in aquifers.
Municipal, irrigation, and industrial water supplies are provided through large wells. Multiple wells for one water supply source are termed "wellfields", which may withdraw water from confined or unconfined aquifers. Using ground water from deep, confined aquifers provides more protection from surface water contamination. Some wells, termed "collector wells", are specifically designed to induce infiltration of surface (usually river) water.
Aquifers that provide sustainable fresh groundwater to urban areas and for agricultural irrigation are typically close to the ground surface (within a couple of hundred metres) and have some recharge by fresh water. This recharge is typically from rivers or meteoric water (precipitation) that percolates into the aquifer through overlying unsaturated materials.
Occasionally, sedimentary or "fossil" aquifers are used to provide irrigation and drinking water to urban areas. In Libya, for example, Muammar Gaddafi's Great Manmade River project has pumped large amounts of groundwater from aquifers beneath the Sahara to populous areas near the coast. Though this has saved Libya money over the alternative, desalination, the aquifers are likely to run dry in 60 to 100 years. Aquifer depletion has been cited as one of the causes of the food price rises of 2011.
First, flood mitigation schemes, intended to protect infrastructure built on floodplains, have had the unintended consequence of reducing aquifer recharge associated with natural flooding. Second, prolonged depletion of groundwater in extensive aquifers can result in land subsidence, with associated infrastructure damage – as well as, third, saline intrusion. Fourth, draining acid sulphate soils, often found in low-lying coastal plains, can result in acidification and pollution of formerly freshwater and estuarine streams.
Groundwater is a highly useful and often abundant resource. However, over-use, over-abstraction or overdraft, can cause major problems to human users and to the environment. The most evident problem (as far as human groundwater use is concerned) is a lowering of the water table beyond the reach of existing wells. As a consequence, wells must be drilled deeper to reach the groundwater; in some places (e.g., California, Texas, and India) the water table has dropped hundreds of feet because of extensive well pumping. The GRACE satellites have collected data that demonstrates 21 of Earth's 37 major aquifers are undergoing depletion. In the Punjab region of India, for example, groundwater levels have dropped 10 meters since 1979, and the rate of depletion is accelerating. A lowered water table may, in turn, cause other problems such as groundwater-related subsidence and saltwater intrusion.
Another cause for concern is that groundwater drawdown from over-allocated aquifers has the potential to cause severe damage to both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems – in some cases very conspicuously but in others quite imperceptibly because of the extended period over which the damage occurs. The importance of groundwater to ecosystems is often overlooked, even by freshwater biologists and ecologists. Groundwaters sustain rivers, wetlands, and lakes, as well as subterranean ecosystems within karst or alluvial aquifers.
Not all ecosystems need groundwater, of course. Some terrestrial ecosystems – for example, those of the open deserts and similar arid environments – exist on irregular rainfall and the moisture it delivers to the soil, supplemented by moisture in the air. While there are other terrestrial ecosystems in more hospitable environments where groundwater plays no central role, groundwater is in fact fundamental to many of the world's major ecosystems. Water flows between groundwaters and surface waters. Most rivers, lakes, and wetlands are fed by, and (at other places or times) feed groundwater, to varying degrees. Groundwater feeds soil moisture through percolation, and many terrestrial vegetation communities depend directly on either groundwater or the percolated soil moisture above the aquifer for at least part of each year. Hyporheic zones (the mixing zone of streamwater and groundwater) and riparian zones are examples of ecotones largely or totally dependent on groundwater.
A 2021 study found that of ~39 million investigated[how?] groundwater wells 6-20% are at high risk of running dry if local groundwater levels decline by a few meters, or – as with many areas and possibly more than half of major aquifers – continue to decline.
Subsidence occurs when too much water is pumped out from underground, deflating the space below the above-surface, and thus causing the ground to collapse. The result can look like craters on plots of land. This occurs because, in its natural equilibrium state, the hydraulic pressure of groundwater in the pore spaces of the aquifer and the aquitard supports some of the weight of the overlying sediments. When groundwater is removed from aquifers by excessive pumping, pore pressures in the aquifer drop and compression of the aquifer may occur. This compression may be partially recoverable if pressures rebound, but much of it is not. When the aquifer gets compressed, it may cause land subsidence, a drop in the ground surface.
In unconsolidated aquifers, groundwater is produced from pore spaces between particles of gravel, sand, and silt. If the aquifer is confined by low-permeability layers, the reduced water pressure in the sand and gravel causes slow drainage of water from the adjoining confining layers. If these confining layers are composed of compressible silt or clay, the loss of water to the aquifer reduces the water pressure in the confining layer, causing it to compress from the weight of overlying geologic materials. In severe cases, this compression can be observed on the ground surface as subsidence. Unfortunately, much of the subsidence from groundwater extraction is permanent (elastic rebound is small). Thus, the subsidence is not only permanent, but the compressed aquifer has a permanently reduced capacity to hold water.
The city of New Orleans, Louisiana is actually below sea level today, and its subsidence is partly caused by removal of groundwater from the various aquifer/aquitard systems beneath it. In the first half of the 20th century, the San Joaquin Valley experienced significant subsidence, in some places up to 8.5 metres (28 feet) due to groundwater removal. Cities on river deltas, including Venice in Italy, and Bangkok in Thailand, have experienced surface subsidence; Mexico City, built on a former lake bed, has experienced rates of subsidence of up to 40 cm (1'3") per year.
For coastal cities, subsidence can increase the risk of other environmental issues, such as sea level rise. For example, Bangkok is expected to have 5.138 million people exposed to coastal flooding by 2070 because of these combining factors.
If the surface water source is also subject to substantial evaporation, a groundwater source may become saline. This situation can occur naturally under endorheic bodies of water, or artificially under irrigated farmland. In coastal areas, human use of a groundwater source may cause the direction of seepage to ocean to reverse which can also cause soil salinization.
As water moves through the landscape, it collects soluble salts, mainly sodium chloride. Where such water enters the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, these salts are left behind. In irrigation districts, poor drainage of soils and surface aquifers can result in water tables' coming to the surface in low-lying areas. Major land degradation problems of soil salinity and waterlogging result, combined with increasing levels of salt in surface waters. As a consequence, major damage has occurred to local economies and environments.
Aquifers in surface irrigated areas in semi-arid zones with reuse of the unavoidable irrigation water losses percolating down into the underground by supplemental irrigation from wells run the risk of salination.
Surface irrigation water normally contains salts in the order of 0.5 g/L or more and the annual irrigation requirement is in the order of 10,000 m3/ha or more so the annual import of salt is in the order of 5,000 kg/ha or more.
Under the influence of continuous evaporation, the salt concentration of the aquifer water may increase continually and eventually cause an environmental problem.
For salinity control in such a case, annually an amount of drainage water is to be discharged from the aquifer by means of a subsurface drainage system and disposed of through a safe outlet. The drainage system may be horizontal (i.e. using pipes, tile drains or ditches) or vertical (drainage by wells). To estimate the drainage requirement, the use of a groundwater model with an agro-hydro-salinity component may be instrumental, e.g. SahysMod.
Seawater intrusion is the flow or presence of seawater into coastal aquifers; it is a case of saltwater intrusion. It is a natural phenomenon but can be caused or worsened by anthropogenic factors, such as sea level rise due to climate change. In the case of homogeneous aquifers, seawater intrusion forms a saline wedge below a transition zone to fresh groundwater, flowing seaward on the top. These changes can have other effects on the land above the groundwater: as an example a 2020 study published in Nature found that coastal groundwater in California would rise in many aquifers, increasing risks of flooding and runoff challenges.
Aquifers near the coast have a lens of freshwater near the surface and denser seawater under freshwater. Seawater penetrates the aquifer diffusing in from the ocean and is denser than freshwater. For porous (i.e., sandy) aquifers near the coast, the thickness of freshwater atop saltwater is about 12 metres (40 ft) for every 0.3 m (1 ft) of freshwater head above sea level. This relationship is called the Ghyben-Herzberg equation. If too much ground water is pumped near the coast, salt-water may intrude into freshwater aquifers causing contamination of potable freshwater supplies. Many coastal aquifers, such as the Biscayne Aquifer near Miami and the New Jersey Coastal Plain aquifer, have problems with saltwater intrusion as a result of overpumping and sea level rise.
Polluted groundwater is less visible, but more difficult to clean up, than pollution in rivers and lakes. Groundwater pollution most often results from improper disposal of wastes on land. Major sources include industrial and household chemicals and garbage landfills, industrial waste lagoons, tailings and process wastewater from mines, oil field brine pits, leaking underground oil storage tanks and pipelines, sewage sludge and septic systems. Polluted groundwater is mapped by sampling soils and groundwater near suspected or known sources of pollution, to determine the extent of the pollution, and to aid in the design of groundwater remediation systems. Preventing groundwater pollution near potential sources such as landfills requires lining the bottom of a landfill with watertight materials, collecting any leachate with drains, and keeping rainwater off any potential contaminants, along with regular monitoring of nearby groundwater to verify that contaminants have not leaked into the groundwater.
Groundwater pollution, from pollutants released to the ground that can work their way down into groundwater, can create a contaminant plume within an aquifer. Pollution can occur from landfills, naturally occurring arsenic, on-site sanitation systems or other point sources, such as petrol stations with leaking underground storage tanks, or leaking sewers.
Movement of water and dispersion within the aquifer spreads the pollutant over a wider area, its advancing boundary often called a plume edge, which can then intersect with groundwater wells or daylight into surface water such as seeps and springs, making the water supplies unsafe for humans and wildlife. Different mechanism have influence on the transport of pollutants, e.g. diffusion, adsorption, precipitation, decay, in the groundwater. The interaction of groundwater contamination with surface waters is analyzed by use of hydrology transport models.
The danger of pollution of municipal supplies is minimized by locating wells in areas of deep groundwater and impermeable soils, and careful testing and monitoring of the aquifer and nearby potential pollution sources.
Around one-third of the world's population drinks water from groundwater resources. Of this, about 10 percent, approximately 300 million people, obtains water from groundwater resources that are heavily polluted with arsenic or fluoride. These trace elements derive mainly from natural sources by leaching from rock and sediments.
Water management agencies, when calculating the "sustainable yield" of aquifer and river water, have often counted the same water twice, once in the aquifer, and once in its connected river. This problem, although understood for centuries, has persisted, partly through inertia within government agencies. In Australia, for example, prior to the statutory reforms initiated by the Council of Australian Governments water reform framework in the 1990s, many Australian states managed groundwater and surface water through separate government agencies, an approach beset by rivalry and poor communication.
In general, the time lags inherent in the dynamic response of groundwater to development have been ignored by water management agencies, decades after scientific understanding of the issue was consolidated. In brief, the effects of groundwater overdraft (although undeniably real) may take decades or centuries to manifest themselves. In a classic study in 1982, John D. Bredehoeft and colleagues modeled a situation where groundwater extraction in an intermontane basin withdrew the entire annual recharge, leaving ‘nothing’ for the natural groundwater-dependent vegetation community. Even when the borefield was situated close to the vegetation, 30% of the original vegetation demand could still be met by the lag inherent in the system after 100 years. By year 500, this had reduced to 0%, signalling complete death of the groundwater-dependent vegetation. The science has been available to make these calculations for decades; however, in general water management agencies have ignored effects that will appear outside the rough timeframe of political elections (3 to 5 years). Marios Sophocleous argued strongly that management agencies must define and use appropriate timeframes in groundwater planning. This will mean calculating groundwater withdrawal permits based on predicted effects decades, sometimes centuries in the future.
In the United States, laws regarding ownership and use of groundwater are generally state laws. Regulation of groundwater to minimize pollution of groundwater is addressed in both state and federal law; in the latter case, through regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In India, 65% of the irrigation is from groundwater and about 90% of extracted groundwater is used for irrigation. The groundwater regulation is controlled and maintained by the central government and four organizations; 1) Central Water Commission, 2) Central Ground Water, 3) Central Ground Water Authority, 4) Central Pollution Control Board.
Laws, regulations and scheme regarding India's groundwater:
A significant portion of Canada’s population relies on the use of groundwater. In Canada, roughly 8.9 million people or 30% of Canada's population rely on groundwater for domestic use and approximately two thirds of these users live in rural areas.
A large federal government groundwater initiative is the development of the multi-barrier approach. The multi-barrier approach is a system of processes to prevent the deterioration of drinking water from the source. The multi-barrier consists of three key elements:
Groundwater may not be confined only to Earth. The formation of some of the landforms observed on Mars may have been influenced by groundwater. There is also evidence that liquid water may also exist in the subsurface of Jupiter's moon Europa.