Some of the water that soaks in does not travel far because it is held by molecular attraction as a surface film on soil particles. This near-surface zone is called the zone of soil moisture. It is crisscrossed by roots, voids left by decayed roots, and animal and worm burrows that enhance the infiltration of rainwater into the soil. Soil water is used by plants in life functions and transpiration.
Some water also evaporates directly back into the atmosphere.
Water that is not held as soil moisture percolates downward until it reaches a zone where all the open spaces in sediment and rock are completely filled with water (Figure). This is the zone of saturation (also called the phreatic zone). Water in the zone of saturation is called groundwater. The upper limit of this zone is known as the water table. Extending upward from the water table is the capillary fringe (capillus = hair).
Here groundwater is held by surface tension in tiny passages between grains of soil or sediment. The area above the water table that includes the capillary fringe and the zone of soil moisture is called the unsaturated zone (also known as the vadose zone). The pore spaces in this zone contain both air and water. Although a considerable amount of water can be present in the unsaturated zone, this water cannot be pumped by wells because it clings too tightly to rock and soil particles. By contrast, below the water table, the water pressure is great enough to allow water to enter wells, thus permitting groundwater to be withdrawn for use. We will examine wells more closely later in the chapter.