Hydrogeological Environments

Peter Riemersma, Grand Valley State University, riemersp@gvsu.edu

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Initial Publication Date: June 6, 2013


This assignment is designed to expose students in my undergraduate 3 credit non lab elective geohydrology course to a variety of hydrogeological environments and groundwater issues/problems that exist in the United States. Much of the course (field trip and local groundwater contamination case study) highlights and emphasizes understanding of the shallow unconsolidated aquifers in Michigan. Students use as their main source of information the data and illustration rich professional USGS Groundwater Atlases. Using this resource, in this activity students learn about the structure of aquifers in volcanic rock, karst and permafrost regions. They teach their fellow students about groundwater problems that result due due to overpumping, subsidence, sinkholes, saltwater intrusion and coal mining.

Key words:
hydrogeologic environments, water supply and water quality problems, aquifers

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This project is a for a 3 credit, non-lab, elective undergraduate Geohydrology course (Geo 440) for upper level students. Physical geology (Geo 111) is the only prerequisite for the course that attracts geology majors but some natural resource management majors as well.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need to have an understanding of porosity, permeability, and aquifer storage as well as knowledge concerning confining units and unconfined and confined aquifers. Prior experience with Powerpoint is also beneficial.

How the activity is situated in the course

The project is started about halfway through the course with presentations during week 10 out of 15. This is after such topics as aquifer properties, groundwater flow and pumping wells have been discussed. By this point in the semester the students are able to select and pair up with another student to work on the project. It is worth 10% of their grade for the course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal of this assignment is to expand student's knowledge of the variety of different hydrogeological environments ( i.e. karst and basalt aquifers) and problems (i.e. subsidence, saltwater intrusion) that exist in the United States.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The assignment is relatively straightforward, with the goals and resources for the project clearly identified. However, given the time constraints of the presentation, the assignment requires synthesis and summary of ideas and highlighting of the unique characteristics of their region.

Other skills goals for this activity

Goals of this project also include writing and oral presentation skills, with a focus on concise description and effective use of visual images and illustrations

Description and Teaching Materials

Description of the Activity

Geology of Groundwater Occurrence in the United States using the U.S.G.S Groundwater Atlases

I hope that this activity calls attention to the USGS Groundwater Atlases, an accessible, economic, and excellent source of hydrogeological information in the United States. There are numerous assignments and activities that can be developed using this resource, of which mine is just one example.

The activity includes research on the unique hydrogeology of an assigned region, preparation of a short written summary and powerpoint presentation, and testing of comprehension on a final exam. At the start of the assignment, students pair up with another student and are randomly assigned a particular "Segment" or region of the United States that corresponds to a particular USGS Groundwater Atlas (Hydrologic Investigations Atlases HA730A – HA730N). I have hard copies of the oversize color Atlases available in the classroom and individual segment hard copies can be purchased from the USGS using the order form at http://pubs.usgs.gov/ha/ha730/orderform.pdf. Online copies are accessible at http://pubs.usgs.gov/ha/ha730/gwa.html. The online access made it easy to incorporate figures into their presentation.

As described in the Atlas introduction, the Atlas is designed "to give an overview of the most important aspects of the geology, hydrology, ground-water flow system, general water quality, and use of the water withdrawn from the Nation's principal aquifers" and is written so that it can be understood by readers who are not hydrologists. "The principles that control the presence, movement, and chemical quality of ground water in different climatic, topographic, and geologic settings are clearly illustrated. The Atlas is, therefore, useful as a teaching tool for introductory courses in hydrology or hydrogeology at the college level and as an overview of ground-water conditions for consultants who need information about an individual aquifer." The Atlases are a particularly engaging teaching resource because of the abundant, high quality color illustrations (maps, graphs and figures) that summarize data and regional hydrogeologic conditions effectively.

Students use the Atlas (and any supplemental references) to prepare a 4 page written summary and ~ 10 slide powerpoint presentation that focus on issues and unique hydrogeological characteristics for their specific region of the United States. For each student group (and segment), I have identified some key questions that they should answer in their paper and presentation (see assignment). For example, the group with the region that includes Wyoming is asked to explain how geysers form and the group that includes Kentucky is asked to contrast water flow through a karst aquifer compared to a sandy aquifer. Students post their written summary on the course Blackboard site and present their 5 – 10 minute talks to the entire class. Students are responsible for the presentation material as the key questions become part of the review sheet for final exam.

Critical components of the assignment are the focused questions and concise requirements. In the absence of this emphasis, many students were overwhelmed by the amount of material in the Atlas and student presentations were too descriptive and ineffective. Another critical component of this assignment was holding students responsible for the material covered by their classmates and having the 4 page summary and presentations available to study from. The assignment allowed for flexibility and creativity in its completion. Less successful groups who often budgeted less time to complete the project were too descriptive, did not summarize information and did not identify or answer key questions. One modification that would lengthen the assignment would be to ask students to explicitly identify key questions for their region rather than providing them. The instructor would then work with the students and their list to identify the focus of their presentation.

Geology of Groundwater Occurrence (Microsoft Word 29kB Apr22 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips


I grade the student written papers and presentations plus include some questions on the final exam in short answer and essay format. Peer pressure is an effective motivator for some groups and students appear more attentive when they know they are going to be tested on the material.

References and Resources

Resources are included in the assignment.