Underground Water Aquifers
When a water-bearing rock readily transmits water to wells and springs, it is called an aquifer. Wells can be drilled into the aquifers and water can be pumped out. Precipitation eventually adds water (recharge) into the porous rock of the aquifer. The rate of recharge is not the same for all aquifers, though, and that must be considered when pumping water from a well. Pumping too much water too fast draws down the water in the aquifer and eventually causes a well to yield less and less water and even run dry. In fact, pumping your well too fast can even cause your neighbor’s well to run dry if you both are pumping from the same aquifer. Every aquifer is unique, although some are more generic than others. The boundaries of an aquifer are usually gradational into other aquifers, so that an aquifer can be part of an aquifer system. The top of an unconfined aquifer is the water table. A confined aquifer has at least one aquitard at its top and, if it is stacked with others, an aquitard at its base.
An aquifer is filled with moving water and the amount of water in storage in the aquifer can vary from season to season and year to year. Ground water may flow through an aquifer at a rate of 50 feet per year or 50 inches per century, depending on the permeability. But no matter how fast or slow, water will eventually discharge or leave an aquifer and must be replaced by new water to replenish or recharge the aquifer. Thus, every aquifer has a recharge zone or zones and a discharge zone or zones. The amount of water in storage in an aquifer is reflected in the elevation of its water table. If the rate of recharge is less than the natural discharge rate plus well production, the water table will decline and the aquifer's storage will decrease. A perched aquifer's water table is usually highly sensitive to the amount of seasonal recharge so a perched aquifer typically can go dry in summers or during drought years.
Aquifers are natural filters that trap sediment and other particles (like bacteria) and provide natural purification of the ground water flowing through them. Like a coffee filter, the pore spaces in an aquifer's rock or sediment purify ground water of particulate matter (the 'coffee grounds') but not of dissolved substances (the 'coffee'). Also, like any filter, if the pore sizes are too large, particles like bacteria can get through. This can be a problem in aquifers in fractured rock. Clay particles and other mineral surfaces in an aquifer also can trap dissolved substances or at least slow them down so they don't move as fast as water percolating through the aquifer.
Natural filtration in soils is very important in recharge areas and in irrigated areas above unconfined aquifers, where water applied at the surface can percolate through the soil to the water table. Despite natural purification, concentrations of some elements in ground water can be high in instances where the rocks and minerals of an aquifer contribute high concentrations of certain elements. In some cases, such as iron staining, health impacts due to high concentrations of dissolved iron are not a problem as much as the aesthetic quality of the drinking water supply. In other cases, where elements such as fluoride, uranium, or arsenic occur naturally in high concentrations, human health may be affected.