Groundwater Potentiometric Surface Mapping

Calla Schmidt, University of San Francisco

Sarah R. Hall, College of the Atlantic

Becca Walker, Mt. San Antonio College

Initial Publication Date: August 31, 2020 | Reviewed: March 12, 2023


In this exercise, students map the elevation of the water table in the Mammoth Groundwater Basin using water levels measured in Mammoth County Water District monitoring wells.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Content/Concept Goals:

Students will...

  • Learn to contour groundwater table elevation.
  • Use potentiometric surface to interpret groundwater flow direction.
  • Predict where groundwater discharge and recharge zones are located.

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals:

Students will...

  • Engage in spatial reasoning.

Other Skills Goals for this Activity:

Students will...

  • If possible, gain experience using an e-tape to measure water elevation in a monitoring well.

Context for Use


This activity was completed during the 2-week summer E-STEM Field Course with ~20 undergraduate students interested in environmental science.

Prerequisite Skills and Concepts:

This activity assumes no prior knowledge about groundwater but does assume some familiarity with contouring data. Students should be comfortable reading a topographic map.

How the Activity is Situated in the Course:

This activity was taught after students had been introduced to the regional geology and Mammoth watershed. View the E-STEM field course timeline for more information about how this activity is situated in the course.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student Handouts

The handout given to students with directions and materials:

gw_potentiometric_surface_handout.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 801kB Sep11 20)

The figures referenced in the student handout:

Figure 1 MW Map.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 1.7MB Jun26 20)

Figure 2 Location of AA_.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 1.5MB Jun26 20)

Figure 3 MW cross section CS.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 806kB Jun26 20)

Figure 4 GW Level 92-2005.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 447kB Jun26 20)

Necessary materials:

  • Electronic tape
  • Tape Measure
  • Map of Monitoring well locations

Teaching Notes and Tips

Contouring data is not intuitive for many students. If your students have not previously manually drawn contours, I suggest doing a simple example on the board with 4-5 data points that illustrates how the rules of contouring are implemented before letting students work independently with the data. I also suggest giving students two maps of the basin, one to practice with and one for a final copy.


Assess the water table elevation map with rubric for the Mapping Badge.

References and Resources

Annual Report on Results of Mammoth Community Water District Groundwater monitoring program for October 2014-September 2015, prepared by Kenneth D Schmidt and Associates. January 2016.