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Under Where? Underground Water and Its Contribution to Streams

This article is from Issue Freshwater - Vol. 18 No. 1.

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When snow melts or rain falls, some of the water runs off into streams or rivers. Most of the water, however, goes down into the soil.  The water that stays close to the soils surface flows laterally and down hillsides. Scientists in this study wanted to know how much does this soil water, in compared to other sources of water, contribute to stream flow in certain areas as well as how levels of snow fall affect ground water's contribution to stream flow. 

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"Thinking About Science Themes" covered in this article:
Chemistry is a useful science tool. Environmental scientists can use chemistry to discover how water flows in an ecosystem. In this study, the scientists wanted to understand how much water in a particular stream began as rainfall or snowfall. They also wanted to know what percentage of the streamís flow came from various locations. The scientists knew that atoms of the same element can have different atomic weights. Different atomic weights are like a signature that helps scientists identify the atom. The scientists also knew that atoms can gain or lose electrons, resulting in a positive or negative charge. This gain or loss creates different chemical compounds, such as calcium or fluoride. These chemical compounds may dissolve in water, but they remain intact as chemical compounds. By testing the water in many places where it enters the ground, and then where water flows in the stream below, scientists can identify where the streamwater originated.
Specific "Thinking About Science" Themes:
  • Scientific Topics

"Thinking About Environmental Themes" covered in this article:
The water cycle describes the movement of water from Earth, to the atmosphere, and back (figure 1). You can see the water cycle at work in rainfall and snowfall, in rivers and streams, and in the oceans. You can observe evaporation by watching water slowly disappear from a wet roadway. You cannot, however, see one mysterious part of the water cycle. Much of Earthís precipitation moves into the soil, and, without your noticing, it flows underground as groundwater (figures 2, 3, 4a, 4b, and 5). This water can surface quickly or stay underground for thousands of years. Underground water comes to the surface naturally through artesian wells, springs, and through seepage to streams and rivers. People bring groundwater to the surface by digging wells that pump water upward for their use. People use groundwater for irrigation, livestock, mining, public use (such as public swimming pools or water in public buildings), and individual household uses. Surface water, such as water in reservoirs, streams, rivers, and lakes, is also used for a variety of similar purposes. Plants use the water in the top several feet of soil for growth. This water is called shallow groundwater, or soil water.
Specific "Thinking About the Environment" Themes:
  • Water Cycle

NSE Standards covered in this article:
  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry (A)
  • Abilities of technological design (E)
  • History of science (G)
  • Motions and forces (B)
  • Nature of science (G)
  • Personal health (F)
  • Populations and ecosystems (C)
  • Populations, resources and environments (F)
  • Properties and changes of properties in matter (B)
  • Science and technology in society (F)
  • Science as a human endeavor (G)
  • Structure and function in living systems (C)
  • Structure of the earth system (D)
  • Transfer of energy (B)
  • Understandings about science and technology (E)
  • Understandings about scientific inquiry (A)