Confined aquifers are permeable rock units that are usually deeper under the ground than unconfined aquifers. They are overlain by relatively impermeable rock or clay that limits groundwater movement into, or out of, the confined aquifer.
Groundwater in a confined aquifer is under pressure and will rise up inside a borehole drilled into the aquifer. The level to which the water rises is called the potentiometric surface. An artesian flow is where water flows out of the borehole under natural pressure.
Confined aquifers may be replenished, or recharged by rain or streamwater infilitrating the rock at some considerable distance away from the confined aquifer. Groundwater in these aquifers can sometimes be thousands of years old.
Where groundwater is in direct contact with the atmosphere through the open pore spaces of the overlying soil or rock, then the aquifer is said to be unconfined. The upper groundwater surface in an unconfined aquifer is called the water table. The depth to the water table varies according to factors such as the topography, geology, season and tidal effects, and the quantities of water being pumped from the aquifer.
Unconfined aquifers are usually recharged by rain or streamwater infiltrating directly through the overlying soil. Typical examples of unconfined aquifers include many areas of coastal sands and alluvial deposits in river valleys.