Subsurface Hydrology

Earth Systems Science Major and Environmental Systems Graduate Program

ESS 112/ES 212 Subsurface Hydrology

Teamrat Ghezzehei
SE2 RM 374, Email: 
OFFICE HOUR: THURSDAY 1:00-2:00 (OR by appointment)


  1. Tindall and Kunkel, (1999). Unsaturated Zone Hydrology for Scientists and Engineers, Prentice Hall 1st edition. [NOTE: free download for individual use].
  2. Oschner (2019), Rain or Shine -- An Introduction to Soil Physical Properties and Processes: An open-access, introductory, multi-media, soil physics textbook (Open Access)

Class format

This course will include a combination of traditional lectures, problem-solving, and computational workshops. Attendance is important and you will be responsible for all aspects of the class meetings.

Course Description

Hydrologic and geologic factors controlling the occurrence and use of groundwater on regional and local scales. Physical, mathematical, geologic and engineering concepts fundamental to subsurface hydrologic processes. Introduction to ground-water flow and transport modeling, with emphasis on model construction and simulation.

Course Goals

  1. Understand the fundamentals of soil physics in terms of soil texture and water storage and retention properties.
  2. Understand the basic principles and mathematical description of storage and movement of water in saturated and unsaturated porous media
  3. Understand the basic mathematical solutions to soil and groundwater flow systems
  4. Be familiar with the principles and procedures of modeling subsurface hydrology problems using computer code
  5. (Graduate Students) Gain competence in written and quatitiative expression of subsurface hydrology principles and outcomes in the context of research on environmental systems

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the course, students should be: [Graduate student-specific in brackets]

  1. Proficient in applying foundational knowledge in mathematics, physics and chemistry in the understanding of the fundamental laws and principles of subsurface hydrology; including Darcy’s Law, Richards Equation, concept of water potential, water retention curve, relative permeability curve
  2. Proficient in the fundamentals of mass and energy conservation, equations of groundwater flow, equations of unsaturated flow, heat transfer, and non-reactive tracer transport
  3. Familiar with the typical ranges of hydrologic properties of different types of geological materials (porosity, permeability, water retention)
  4. Familiar [Proficient] with addressing subsurface hydrology questions/problems using professional simulators (e.g., HYDRUS)
  5. Be able to use laboratory and field data to make hydrologic interpretations and to perform optimization and parameter estimation of relevant models
  6. Apply effective [graduate level] written and oral communication skills of complex hydrologic concepts and results of hydrologic analyses and models
  7. Develop problem-solving skills individually and in teams
  8. [Comfortable with critical evaluation of research methods and outcomes in studies related to subsurface hydrology]


Approximately 6 homeworks—including traditional problems sets, computer modeling exercises, and written responses--will be given on approximately a weekly-to-biweekly basis and will be due on the date indicated on the assignment sheet. Late assignments will be downgraded 10% per day. Once the homework solution has been posted, then maximum available homework grade is 50%.   It is important that you complete your homework assignments in a neat and orderly fashion. Your homework grade will be the percentage of problems attempted with reasonable effort and handed in on time, and on the presentation of the work.


There will be two midterm exam (1.5 hours). These exams will be closed book except for a summary sheet (8.5x11, both sides). A term project (see below) will take the place of a final examination.

Student Projects

At roughly the midpoint of the course, we will begin to work on term projects. All students are required to complete an independent project that involves solving a practical or research problem in subsurface hydrology. The project typically involves use of a computer model.

ESS 112: Undergraduate students are expected to choose a topic from assigned list of problems and prepare a short plan of action. The plan (1-page, single-spaced and including 1 graph/image) is due in class on or before Thursday March 10. The final project report must be a professional-looking document, 10 single-spaced pages (including references at the end and embedded figures througout) document and should include introduction (what is it about and why do it?), explanation of the methods and data used (which ones? why these methods?), presentation of results and discussion (what did you find why is it significant?). Properly organized data files and computer model inputs and outputs must be submitted as electronic supplements to the report.

ES 212: Graduate students can choose a topic that is related to their graduate thesis project. Students are required to write a project proposal describing a research hypothesis or problem they want to solve and their approach to doing so. The proposal should 3 single-spaced, including one figure and a maximum of 5 references. Students are encouraged, but not required, to include preliminary information such as data or preliminary modeling run. The proposal is due on Thursday March 10. The final report of the project must be written in the form of a journal article (15 single-spaced pages) including figures but not including references (no limit on the number of references). Properly organized data files and computer model inputs and outputs must be submitted as electronic supplements to the report.


Course grades will be weighted as follows: Problem sets 20%; Mid-term exams (2) 30%; Final project presentation 10%; Final project report 40%.

Academic Honesty

Academic integrity is the foundation of an academic community and without it none of the

educational or research goals of the university can be achieved. All members of the university

community are responsible for its academic integrity. Existing policies forbid cheating on

examinations, plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty.

  1. Each student in this course is expected to abide by the University of California, Merced’s Academic Honesty Policy. Any work submitted by a student in this course for academic credit will be the student's own work.
  2. You are encouraged to study together and to discuss information and concepts covered in lecture and the sections with other students. You can give "consulting" help to or receive "consulting" help from such students. However, this permissible cooperation should never involve one student having possession of a copy of all or part of work done by someone else, in the form of an email, an e-mail attachment file, a flashdrive, or a hard copy. Should copying occur, both the student who copied work from another student and the student who gave material to be copied will both automatically receive a zero for the assignment. Penalty for violation of this Policy can also be extended to include failure of the course and University disciplinary action.
  3. During examinations, you must do your own work. Talking or discussion is not permitted during the examinations, nor may you compare papers, copy from others, or collaborate in any way. Any collaborative behavior during the examinations will result in failure of the exam, and may lead to failure of the course and University disciplinary action.