Infiltration (hydrology)

Infiltration is the process by which water on the ground surface enters the soil. Infiltration rate in soil science is a measure of the rate at which soil is able to absorb rainfall or irrigation. It is measured in inches per hour or millimeters per hour. The rate decreases as the soil becomes saturated. If the precipitation rate exceeds the infiltration rate, runoff will usually occur unless there is some physical barrier. It is related to the saturated hydraulic conductivity of the near-surface soil. The rate of infiltration can be measured using an infiltrometer. Infiltration is governed by two forces: gravity and capillary action. While smaller pores offer greater resistance to gravity, very small pores pull water through capillary action in addition to and even against the force of gravity. The rate of infiltration is affected by soil characteristics including ease of entry, storage capacity, and transmission rate through the soil. The soil texture and structure, vegetation types and cover, water content of the soil, soil temperature, and rainfall intensity all play a role in controlling infiltration rate and capacity. For example, coarse-grained sandy soils have large spaces between each grain and allow water to infiltrate quickly. Vegetation creates more porous soils by both protecting the soil from pounding rainfall, which can close natural gaps between soil particles, and loosening soil through root action. This is why forested areas have the highest infiltration rates of any vegetative types. The top layer of leaf litter that is not decomposed protects the soil from the pounding action of rain; without this the soil can become far less permeable. In chapparal vegetated areas, the hydrophobic oils in the succulent leaves can be spread over the soil surface with fire, creating large areas of hydrophobic soil. Other conditions that can lower infiltration rates or block them include dry plant litter that resists re-wetting, or frost. If soil is saturated at the time of an intense freezing period, the soil can become a concrete frost on which almost no infiltration would occur. Over an entire watershed, there are likely to be gaps in the concrete frost or hydrophobic soil where water can infiltrate. Once water has i filtrated the soil it remains in the soil, percolates down to the ground water table, or becomes part of the subsurface runoff process. [edit]Process The process of infiltration can continue only if there is room available for additional water at the soil surface. The available volume for additional water in the soil depends on the porosity of the soil[1] and the rate at which previously infiltrated water can move away from the surface through the soil. The maximum rate that water can enter a soil in a given condition is the infiltration capacity. If the arrival of the water at the soil surface is less than the infiltration capacity, all of the water will infiltrate. If rainfall intensity at the soil surface occurs at a rate that exceeds the infiltration capacity, ponding begins and is followed by runoff over the ground surface, once depression storage is filled. This runoff is called Horton overland flow. The entire hydrologic system of a watershed is sometimes analyzed using hydrology transport models, mathematical models that consider infiltration, runoff and channel flow to predict river flow rates and stream water quality. [edit]Research findings Robert E. Horton (1933)[2] suggested that infiltration capacity rapidly declines during the early part of a storm and then tends towards an approximately constant value after a couple of hours for the remainder of the event. Previously infiltrated water fills the available storage spaces and reduces the capillary forces drawing water into the pores. Clay particles in the soil may swell as they become wet and thereby reduce the size of the pores. In areas where the ground is not protected by a layer of forest litter, raindrops can detach soil particles from the surface and wash fine particles into surface pores where they can impede the infiltration process. [edit]Infiltration in wastewater collection Wastewater collection systems consist of a set of lines, junctions and lift stations to convey sewage to a wastewater treatment plant. When these Herr lines are compromised by rupture, cracking or tree root invasion, infiltration/inflow of stormwater often occurs. This circumstance can lead to a sanitary sewer overflow, or discharge of untreated sewage to the environment.