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What is Infiltration?

Infiltration is the process by which water on the ground

surface enters the soil. Infiltration rate in soil science is a measure of the rate at which soil is able to absorb rainfall or irrigation. It is measured in inches per hour or millimeters per hour. The rate decreases as the soil becomes saturated. If the precipitation rate exceeds the infiltration rate, runoff will usually occur unless there is some physical barrier. It is related to the saturated hydraulic conductivity of the near-surface soil. The rate of infiltration can be measured using an infiltrometer.

The greatest factor controlling infiltration is the amount and characteristics (intensity, duration, etc.) of precipitation that falls as rain or snow. Precipitation that infiltrates into the ground often seeps into streambeds over an extended period of time, thus a stream will often continue to flow when it hasn't rained for a long time and where there is no direct runoff from recent precipitation.

Some soils, such as clays, absorb less water at a slower rate than sandy soils. Soils absorbing less water result in more runoff overland into streams.

Like a wet sponge, soil already saturated from previous rainfall can't absorb much more ... thus more rainfall will become surface runoff.

Some land covers have a great impact on infiltration and rainfall runoff. Vegetation can slow the movement of runoff, allowing more time for it to seep into the ground. Impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads, and developments, act as a "fast lane" for rainfall - right into storm drains that drain directly into streams. Agriculture and the tillage of land also changes the infiltration patterns of a landscape. Water that, in natural conditions, infiltrated directly into soil now runs off into streams.


Water falling on steeply-sloped land runs off more quickly and infiltrates less than water falling on flat land.

Some infiltration stays near the land surface, which is where plants put down their roots. Plants need this shallow groundwater to grow, and, by the process of evapotranspiration, water is moved back into the atmosphere.

The process of infiltration can continue only if there is room available for additional water at the soil surface. The available volume for additional water in the soil depends on the porosity of the soil and the rate at which previously infiltrated water can move away from the surface through the soil. The maximum rate that water can enter a soil in a given condition is the infiltration capacity. If the arrival of the water at the soil surface is less than the infiltration capacity, is sometimes analyzed using hydrology transport models, mathematical models that consider infiltration, runoff and channel flow to predict river flow rates and stream water quality.

Robert E. Horton (1933) suggested that infiltration

capacity rapidly declines during the early part of a storm and then tends towards an approximately constant value after a couple of hours for the remainder of the event. Previously infiltrated water fills the available storage spaces and reduces the capillary forces drawing water into the pores. Clay particles in the soil may swell as they become wet and thereby reduce the size of the pores. In areas where the ground is not protected by a layer of forest litter, raindrops can detach soil particles from the surface and wash fine particles into surface pores where they can impede the infiltration process.

General hydrologic budget

The general hydrologic budget, with all the components, with respect to infiltration F. Given all the other variables and infiltration is the only unknown, simple algebra solves the infiltration question.

where F is infiltration, which can be measured as a volume or length; is the boundary input, which is essentially the output watershed from adjacent, directly connected impervious areas; is the boundary output, which is also related to surface runoff, R, depending on where one chooses to define the exit point or points for the boundary output; P is precipitation; E is evaporation; T is transpiration; ET is evapotranspiration; S is the storage through either retention or detention areas; is the initial abstraction, which is the short term surface storage such as puddles or even possibly detention ponds depending on size; R is surface runoff.

Named for two men; Green and Ampt. The Green-Ampt method of infiltration estimation accounts for many variables that other methods, such as Darcy's law, do not. It is a function of the soil suction head, porosity, hydraulic conductivity and time.


is wetting front soil suction head;

is water content; is Hydraulic conductivity; is the total volume already infiltrated.

Kostiakov equation



are empirical parameters.

Darcy's law

where is the hydraulic conductivity; is the depth of ponded water above the ground surface; is wetting front soil suction head

L is the total depth of subsurface ground in question.