The interaction involves physical, chemical and biological processes.

The interaction of ground water and surface water involves many physical, chemical and biological processes.
Traditionally, management of water resources has focused on surface water or ground water as if they were separate entities. As development of land and water resources increases, it is apparent that development of either of these resources affects the quantity and quality of the other. Nearly all surface-water features (streams, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands and estuaries) interact with ground water.

These interactions take many forms. In many situations, surface water bodies gain water and solutes from ground water systems and in others, the surface water body is a source of ground water recharge and causes changes in ground water quality. As a result, withdrawal of water from streams can deplete ground water or conversely, pumpage of ground water can deplete water in streams, lakes or wetlands. Pollution of surface water can cause degradation of ground water quality and, conversely, pollution of ground water can degrade surface water. Thus, effective land and water management requires a clear understanding of the linkages between ground water and surface water as it applies to any given hydrologic setting.

The interaction of ground water and surface water involves many physical, chemical and biological processes that take place in a variety of physiographic and climatic settings. For many decades, studies of the interaction of ground water and surface water were directed primarily at large alluvial stream and aquifer systems. Interest in the relation of ground water to surface water has increased in recent years as a result of widespread concerns related to water supply; contamination of ground water, lakes and streams by toxic substances (commonly where not expected); acidification of surface waters caused by atmospheric deposition of sulfate and nitrate; eutrophication of lakes; loss of wetlands due to development; and other changes in aquatic environments. As a result, studies of the interaction of ground water and surface water have expanded to include many other settings, including headwater streams, lakes, wetlands and coastal areas.

Water Supply

Water commonly is not present at the locations and times where and when it is most needed. As a result, engineering works of all sizes have been constructed to distribute water from places of abundance to places of need. Regardless of the scale of the water-supply system, development of either ground water or surface water can eventually affect the other. For example, whether the source of irrigation water is ground water or surface water, return flows from irrigated fields will eventually reach surface water either through ditches or through ground water discharge. Building dams to store surface water or diverting water from a stream changes the hydraulic connection and the hydraulic gradient between that body of surface water and the adjacent ground water, which, in turn, results in gains or losses of ground water. In some landscapes, development of ground water at even a great distance from surface water can reduce the amount of ground-water inflow to surface water or cause surface water to recharge ground water.

The hydrologic system is complex - from the climate system that drives it, to the earth materials that the water flows across and through, and to the modifications of the system by human activities. Much research and engineering has been devoted to the development of water resources for water supply. However, most past work has concentrated on either surface water or ground water without much concern about their interrelations. The need to understand better how development of one water resource affects the other is universal and will surely increase as development intensifies.

Much research and engineering has been devoted to the development of water resources for water supply.

Water Quality

For nearly every type of water use - whether municipal, industrial or agricultural - water has increased concentrations of dissolved constituents or increased temperature following its use. Therefore, the water quality of the water bodies that receive the discharge or return flow are affected by that use. In addition, as the water moves downstream, additional water use can degrade the water quality further. If irrigation return flow, or discharge from a municipal or industrial plant, moves downstream and is drawn back into an aquifer because of ground water withdrawals, the ground water system also will be affected by the quality of that surface water.

Application of irrigation water to cropland can result in the return flow being of poorer quality because evapotranspiration by plants removes some water but not the dissolved salts. As a result, the dissolved salts can precipitate as solids, increasing the salinity of the soils. Additional application of water dissolves these salts and moves them farther downgradient in the hydrologic system. In addition, application of fertilizers and pesticides to cropland can result in poor-quality return flows to both ground water and surface water. The transport and fate of contaminants caused by agricultural practices and municipal and industrial discharges are a widespread concern that can be addressed most effectively if ground water and surface water are managed as a single resource.

Water scientists and water managers need to design data-collection programs that examine the effects of biogeochemical processes on water quality at the interface between surface water and near-surface sediments. These processes can have a profound effect on the chemistry of ground water recharging surface water and on the chemistry of surface water recharging ground water. Repeated exchange of water between surface water and near-surface sediments can further enhance the importance of these processes. Research on the interface between ground water and surface water has increased in recent years, but only a few stream environments have been studied, and the transfer value of the research results is limited and uncertain.

The tendency for chemical contaminants to move between ground water and surface water is a key consideration in managing water resources. With an increasing emphasis on watersheds as a focus for managing water quality, coordination between watershed management and ground water protection programs will be essential to protect the quality of drinking water. Furthermore, ground water and surface water interactions have a major role in affecting chemical and biological processes in lakes, wetlands and streams, which, in turn, affect water quality throughout the hydrologic system. Improved scientific understanding of the interconnections between hydrological and biogeochemical processes will be needed to remediate contaminated sites, to evaluate applications for waste-discharge permits, and to protect or restore biological resources.

Environmental Characteristics

The interface between ground water and surface water is an areally restricted, but particularly sensitive and critical niche in the total environment. At this interface, ground water that has been affected by environmental conditions on the terrestrial landscape interacts with surface water that has been affected by environmental conditions upstream. Furthermore, the chemical reactions that take place where chemically distinct surface water meets chemically distinct ground water in the hyporheic zone may result in a biogeochemical environment that, in some cases, could be used as an indicator of changes in either terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems. The ability to understand this interface is challenging because it requires the focusing of many different scientific and technical disciplines at the same, areally restricted locality. The benefit of this approach to studying the interface of ground water and surface water could be the identification of useful biological or chemical indicators of adverse or positive changes in larger terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Wetlands are a type of aquatic environment present in most landscapes; yet, in many areas, their perceived value is controversial. The principal characteristics and functions of wetlands are determined by the water and chemical balances that maintain them. These factors in large part determine the value of a wetland for flood control, nutrient retention and wildlife habitat. As a result, they are especially sensitive to changing hydrological conditions. When the hydrological and chemical balances of a wetland change, the wetland can take on a completely different function - or it may be destroyed. Generally, the most devastating impacts on wetlands result from changes in land use. Wetlands commonly are drained to make land available for agricultural use or filled to make land available for urban and industrial development. Without understanding how wetlands interact with ground water, many plans to use land formerly occupied by wetlands fail. For example, it is operationally straightforward to fill in or drain a wetland, but the ground water flow system that maintains many wetlands may continue to discharge at that location. Many structures and roads built on former wetlands and many wetland restoration or construction programs fail for this reason. Saline soils in many parts of the central prairies also result from evaporation of ground water that continues to discharge to the land surface after the wetlands were drained.

Riparian zones also are particularly sensitive to changes in the availability and quality of ground water and surface water because these ecosystems commonly are dependent on both sources of water. If either water source changes, riparian zones may be altered, changing their ability to provide aquatic habitat, mitigate floods and erosion, stabilize shorelines and process chemicals, including contaminants. Effective management of water resources requires an understanding of the role of riparian zones and their dependence on the interaction of ground water and surface water.