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Circular 1346

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

The Quality of Our Nation's Waters

Quality of Water from Public-Supply Wells in the United States, 1993–2007
Overview of Major Findings

By Patricia L. Toccalino and Jessica A. Hopple

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Summary of Major Findings and Implications

About 105 million people in the United States—more than one-third of the Nation’s population—receive their drinking water from about 140,000 public water systems that use groundwater as their source. Although the quality of finished drinking water (after treatment and before distribution) from these public water systems is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), long-term protection and management of groundwater, a vital source of drinking water, requires an understanding of the occurrence of contaminants in untreated source water. Sources of drinking water are potentially vulnerable to a wide range of man-made and naturally occurring contaminants, including many that are not regulated in drinking water under the SDWA.

In this study by the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), chemical water-quality conditions were assessed in source (untreated) groundwater from 932 public-supply wells, hereafter referred to as public wells, and in source and finished water from a subset of 94 wells. The public wells are located in selected parts of 41 states and withdraw water from parts of 30 regionally extensive water-supply aquifers, which constitute about one-half of the principal aquifers in the United States. Although the wells sampled in this study represent less than 1 percent of all groundwater-supplied public water systems in the United States, they are widely distributed nationally and were randomly selected within the sampled hydrogeologic settings to represent typical aquifer conditions. All source-water samples were collected prior to any treatment or blending that potentially could alter contaminant concentrations. As a result, the sampled groundwater represents the quality of the source water and not necessarily the quality of finished water ingested by the people served by these public wells.

A greater number of chemical contaminants—as many as 337—both naturally occurring and man-made, were assessed in this study than in any previous national study of public wells (Appendixes 1 and 2). Consistent with the terminology used in the SDWA, all constituents analyzed in water samples in this study are referred to as "contaminants," regardless of their source, concentration, or potential for health effects (see sidebar on page 3). Eighty-three percent (279) of the contaminants analyzed in this study are not regulated in drinking water under the SDWA. The USEPA uses USGS data on the occurrence of unregulated contaminants to fulfill part of the SDWA requirements for determining whether specific contaminants should be regulated in drinking water in the future. By focusing primarily on source-water quality, and by analyzing many contaminants that are not regulated in drinking water by USEPA, this study complements the extensive sampling of public water systems that is routinely conducted for the purposes of regulatory compliance monitoring by federal, state, and local drinking-water programs.

The objectives of this study were to evaluate (1) the occurrence of contaminants in source water from public wells and their potential significance to human health, (2) whether contaminants that occur in source water also occur in finished water after treatment, and (3) the occurrence and characteristics of contaminant mixtures. To evaluate the potential significance of contaminant occurrence to human health, contaminant concentrations were compared to regulatory Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) or non-regulatory Health-Based Screening Levels (HBSLs)—collectively referred to as human-health benchmarks in this study (see sidebars on pages 4 and 19).

The major findings and implications of this study are summarized below and the results are described in greater detail in the remainder of the report. These findings build upon water-quality data from previous public-well studies and provide new information to agencies and organizations that manage the protection of drinking water and human health.

First posted May 21, 2010

For additional information contact:
Chief, National Water-Quality Assessment Program
U.S. Geological Survey
413 National Center
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, Virginia 20192

Part or all of this report is presented in Portable Document Format (PDF); the latest version of Adobe Reader or similar software is required to view it. Download the latest version of Adobe Reader, free of charge.

Suggested citation:

Toccalino, P.L., and Hopple, J.A., 2010, The quality of our Nation’s waters—Quality of water from public-supply wells in the United States, 1993–2007—Overview of major findings: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1346, 58 p.


Summary of Major Findings and Implications


NAWQA's Approach to Assessing the Quality of Water from Public Wells

Major Findings

References Cited

Appendixes—Lists of Contaminants Analyzed

Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Units of Measure

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