This chapter discusses some of the fundamental concepts, data needs and approaches that aid in developing a general understanding of a groundwater system. Principles of the hydrological cycle are reviewed; the processes of recharge and discharge in aquifer systems; types of geological, hydrological and hydraulic data needed to describe the hydrogeological framework of an aquifer system; factors affecting the distribution of recharge to aquifers; and uses of groundwater chemistry, geochemical modelling, environmental tracers and age interpretations in groundwater studies. Together, these concepts and observations aid in developing a conceptualization of groundwater flow systems and provide input to the development of numerical models of a flow system. Conceptualization of the geology, hydrology, geochemistry, and hydrogeological and hydrochemical framework can be quite useful in planning, study design, guiding sampling campaigns, acquisition of new data and, ultimately, developing numerical models capable of assessing a wide variety of societal issues — for example, sustainability of groundwater resources in response to real or planned withdrawals from the system, CO2 sequestration or other waste isolation issues (such as nuclear waste disposal).
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Characterization and conceptualization of groundwater flow systems: Chapter 2