Extended Explanation

My Aquifer > Groundwater Basics > Why is ground water so clean if it flows through rock and dirt?


Like a coffee filter, the Vocabulary Term!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 (like the Snake River Plain, or areas outside the sediment-filled valleys of southeast Idaho).

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 Vocabulary Term!unconfined aquifers, where water applied at the surface can percolate through the soil to the Vocabulary Term!water table. For example, in the lower Portneuf River valley (Figure 5), a protective layer of silt in the southern valley provides natural protection to the aquifer from septic systems, pesticide application, and accidental chemical spills.

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.