An aquifer is a body of porous rock or sediment saturated with groundwater. Groundwater enters an aquifer as precipitation seeps through the soil. It can move through the aquifer and resurface through springs and wells.
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A water well system next to a house, showing how aquifers are an important source of water.
Graphic by NosorogUA
An aquifer is a body of rock and/or sediment that holds groundwater. Groundwater is the word used to describe precipitation that has infiltrated the soil beyond the surface and collected in empty spaces underground.
There are two general types of aquifers: confined and unconfined. Confined aquifers have a layer of impenetrable rock or clay above them, while unconfined aquifers lie below a permeable layer of soil.
Many different types of sediments and rocks can form aquifers, including gravel, sandstone, conglomerates, and fractured limestone. Aquifers are sometimes categorized according to the type of rock or sediments of which they are composed.
A common misconception about aquifers is that they are underground rivers or lakes. While groundwater can seep into or out of aquifers due to their porous nature, it cannot move fast enough to flow like a river. The rate at which groundwater moves through an aquifer varies depending on the rock’s permeability.
Much of the water we use for domestic, industrial, or agricultural purposes is groundwater. Most groundwater, including a significant amount of our drinking water, comes from aquifers. In order to access this water, a well must be created by drilling a hole that reaches the aquifer. While wells are manmade points of discharge for aquifers, they also discharge naturally at springs and in wetlands.
Groundwater can become depleted if we use it at a faster rate than it can replenish itself. The replenishment of aquifers by precipitation is called recharging. Depletion of aquifers has increased primarily due to expanding agricultural irrigation. Groundwater can become contaminated when an excessive amount of pesticides and herbicides are sprayed on agricultural fields, septic tanks leak, or landfills are improperly lined or managed and toxic materials seep through the soil into the aquifer.
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Aquifers naturally filter groundwater by forcing it to pass through small pores and between sediments, which helps to remove substances from the water. This natural filtration process, however, may not be enough to remove all of the contaminants.