Hydrogeology is a complex subject, as the chemical and physical interactions between soil and water are intricate and difficult to quantify. Although the basic principles of hydrogeology are not complex or difficult to understand, the quantification of some of the most important aspects of this science are very complex, multi-component systems that are difficult to determine through direct measurement, and are therefore determined through groundwater modeling which presents questions as to the accuracy of these techniques.
For example, it may be desirable to determine the conditions of flow for a chemical plume from a spill or leak, such as produced by a leaking storage tank. If the contaminant reaches the groundwater then the contaminant may be dissolved in and carried with it. It is possible to determine the concentration in the water by sampling of wells. It is also possible to determine the direction and speed of the groundwater flow by measuring the water table elevation in several wells and using Darcy's law:
v = k /n x (Ha - Hb)/D
where v = velocity,
k = permeability factor, depending on soil type,
n = porosity, depending on soil type,
Ha, Hb = Hydraulic head (groundwater level) in wells A and B,
D = horizontal distance between wells A and B
((Ha-Hb)/D is called the 'hydraulic gradient').
However, the speed of the contaminant is not likely to be the same as the speed of the groundwater due to adsorption and organic matter content of the soil, dilution and attenuation, all depending on the nature of the contaminant. So, to determine where that plume may be headed, and where it will be in the future, requires mathematical groundwater modeling. Simple models may be two dimensional (in a horizontal plane) only. Other, more complex three dimensional models based on extensive field data, may require considerable computing time. These models are then usually set up using a finite element method (FEM).
Hydrogeology has particular importance with regards to remediation issues such as a 'simple' thing as an urban groundwater contamination caused by a dry cleaner using 'tri' and 'tetra' or a complex case as burial of hazardous waste and finding out where that waste went when it escaped from such facilities as the Hanford Nuclear Waste Dump and other Department of Energy facilities, such as Los Alamos National Lab and Sandia National Labs.
As an example, an understanding of the hydrogeology surrounding the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or WIPP where tons of low level radioactive waste will be interred in salt mines is of utmost importance to help determine the chances of leakage or escape of material over hundreds or thousands of years. The hydrogeology of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada nuclear waste site, for storage of high level radioactive waste has been studied intensely in anticipation of receiving tens of thousands of glass log or similar canisters of extremely radioactive waste less than 80 miles from Las Vegas.
Also see: Environmental Engineering