How Does Geology Affect Groundwater Availability?

Understanding the nature of the bedrock geology is critical to determining the quantity of groundwater that can be pumped from a well at a given place.  In some parts of the world, bedrock consists of sedimentary layers that have abundant pore spaces between individual mineral grains.  These layers can form laterally extensive aquifers, or conduits for groundwater movement, that are at predictable depths, and from which seemingly unlimited quantities of high-quality groundwater can be pumped.   In these areas, groundwater is the obvious solution for public water supply needs.

In contrast, the bedrock beneath most of the Virginia Piedmont and Blue Ridge is very complex, and contains relatively few open spaces to conduct groundwater.  Extensive subsurface aquifers are rare, and both the quantity of water available at a given site, and the depth of the water-bearing zones, are highly variable and difficult to predict.   Also, the wide variety of mineralogy and rock chemistry in this geologically complex area can cause variations in groundwater chemistry that lead to water quality problems.  Water well productivity and groundwater quality are determined by a complex interplay among fractures in the bedrock aquifer, which supply water to the drilled well, and the local soils and saprolite, which provide storage and recharge to the bedrock fractures.  Soil, saprolite and fractured bedrock control groundwater flow:

Cartoon cross-section showing fractured bedrock aqjuifer. Fractures are saturated with water below the water table (horizontal blue line).

Bedrock geology determines the density and distribution of underground water-bearing fractures, and the nature  of the soils and saprolite that are derived from weathering of the rock. Different rocks contain more or less fractures that may or may not be interconnected with each other. The degree of interconnection among fractures, and their overall ability to move water, has a great deal to do with how productive a water well will be that intersects the fractures.  Different rocks also make different soils when they weather, and the type of soil impacts its ability to absorb rainwater that falls at the surface, and transmit the water to bedrock fractures beneath.  In central Virginia, bedrock geology is very complex: each color and pattern on the geologic map represents a different type of rock.

Portion of the 1993 Geologic Map of Virginia showing geological complexity in central Virginia. Each color/pattern on the map represents a distinct type of bedrock.

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