Infiltration and soil water storage

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The Water Cycle: Groundwater Storage. Source USGS

October 12, 2006, 10:04 pm
November 3, 2011, 9:24 am


Infiltration refers to the movement of water into the soil layer. The rate of this movement is called the infiltration rate. If rainfall intensity is greater than the infiltration rate, water will accumulate on the surface and runoff will begin.

Movement of water into the soil is controlled by gravity, capillary action, and soil porosity. Of these factors soil porosity is most important. A soil's porosity is controlled by its texture, structure, and organic content. Coarse-textured soils have larger pores and fissures than fine-grained soils and therefore allow for more water flow. Pores and fissures found in soils can be made larger through a number of factors that enhance internal soil structure. For example, the burrowing of worms and other organisms and penetration of plant roots can increase the size and number of macro- and micro-channels within the soil. The amount of decayed organic matter found at the soil surface can also enhance infiltration. Organic matter is generally more porous than mineral soil particles and can hold much greater quantities of water.

The rate of infiltration normally declines rapidly during the early part of a rainstorm event and reaches a constant value after several hours of rainfall. A number of factors are responsible for this phenomena, including:

  1. The filling of small pores on the soil surface with water reduces the ability of capillary forces to actively move water into the soil.
  2. As the soil moistens, the micelle structure of the clay particles absorb water causing them to expand. This expansion reduces the size of soil pores.
  3. Raindrop impact breaks large soil clumps into smaller particles. These particles then clog soil surface pores reducing the movement of water into the soil.

Soil Water Storage

Figure 1: Relationship between soil water film thickness and moisture tension. (Source:

Within the soil system, the storage of water is influenced by several different forces. The strongest force is the molecular force of elements and compounds found on the surface of soil minerals. The water retained by this force is called hygroscopic water and it consists of the water held within 0.0002 millimeters of the surface of soil particles. The maximum limit of this water around a soil particle is known as the hygroscopic coefficient. Hygroscopic water is essentially non-mobile and can only be removed from the soil through heating. Matric force holds soil water from 0.0002 to 0.06 millimeters from the surface of soil particles. This force is due to two processes: soil particle surface molecular attraction (adhesion and absorption) to water and the cohesion that water molecules have to each other. This force declines in strength with distance from the soil particle. The force becomes nonexistent past 0.06 millimeters. Capillary action moves this water from areas where the matric force is low to areas where it is high. Because this water is primarily moved by capillary action, scientists commonly refer to it as capillary water. Plants can use most of this water by way of capillary action until the soil wilting point is reached. Water in excess of capillary and hygroscopic water is called gravitational water. Gravitational water is found beyond 0.06 millimeters from the surface of soil particles and it moves freely under the effect of gravity. When gravitational water has drained away, the amount of water that remains is called the soil's field capacity.

Figure 1 describes the relationship between the thickness of water film around soil particles and the strength of the force that holds this water. Force is measured in units called bars. One bar is equal to 1,000 millibars. The graph also displays the location of hygroscopic water, the hygroscopic coefficient, the wilting point, capillary water, field capacity, and gravitational water along this line.

Further Reading


Pidwirny, M. (2011). Infiltration and soil water storage. Retrieved from