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Circular 1385

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

The Quality of Our Nation's Waters

Factors Affecting Public-Supply-Well Vulnerability to Contamination: Understanding Observed Water Quality and Anticipating Future Water Quality

By Sandra M. Eberts, Mary Ann Thomas, and Martha L. Jagucki

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As part of the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program, a study was conducted from 2001 to 2011 to shed light on factors that affect the vulnerability of water from public-supply wells to contamination (referred to hereafter as “public-supply-well vulnerability”). The study was designed as a follow-up to earlier NAWQA studies that found mixtures of contaminants at low concentrations in groundwater near the water table in urban areas across the Nation and, less frequently, in deeper groundwater typically used for public supply.

Beside the factors affecting public-supply-well vulnerability to contamination, this circular describes measures that can be used to determine which factor (or factors) plays a dominant role at an individual public-supply well. Case-study examples are used throughout to show how such information can be used to improve water quality.

In general, the vulnerability of the water from public-supply wells to contamination is a function of contaminant input within the area that contributes water to a well, the mobility and persistence of a contaminant once released to the groundwater, and the ease of groundwater and contaminant movement from the point of recharge to the open interval of a well. The following measures described in this circular are particularly useful for indicating which contaminants in an aquifer might reach an individual public-supply well and when, how, and at what concentration they might arrive:

  • Sources of recharge—Information on the sources of recharge for a well provides insight into contaminants that might enter the aquifer with the recharge water and potentially reach the well.

  • Geochemical conditions—Information on the geochemical conditions encountered by groundwater traveling to a well provides insight into contaminants that might persist in the water all the way to the well.

  • Groundwater-age mixtures—Information on the ages of the different waters that mix in a well provides insight into the time lag between contaminant input at the water table and contaminant arrival at the well. It also provides insight into the potential for in-well dilution of contaminated water by unaffected groundwater of a different age that simultaneously enters the well.

Preferential flow pathways—pathways that provide little resistance to flow—can influence how all other factors affect public-supply-well vulnerability to contamination. For example, preferential flow pathways can influence whether a contaminant source is physically linked to a well, whether contaminant concentrations are substantially altered before contaminated groundwater reaches a well, and whether contaminated groundwater can arrive at a well within a timeframe of concern to the well owner. Methods for recognizing the influence of preferential flow pathways on the quality of water from a public-supply well are presented in this circular and can provide opportunities to prevent or mitigate the deterioration of a water supply.

Knowing what water-quality variables to measure, what spatial and temporal scales on which to measure them, and how to interpret the resulting data makes it possible for samples from public-supply wells to provide a broad window into a well’s past and present water quality—and possibly future water quality. Such insight can enable resource managers to prioritize actions for sustaining a high-quality groundwater source of drinking water.

First posted August 5, 2013

For additional information contact:
Chief, National Water-Quality Assessment Program
U.S. Geological Survey
413 National Center
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, VA 2019

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Suggested citation:

Eberts, S.M., Thomas, M.A., and Jagucki, M.L., 2013, The quality of our Nation’s waters—Factors affecting public-supply-well vulnerability to contamination—Understanding observed water quality and anticipating future water quality: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1385, 120 p. Available online at


Chapter 1 Overview—Major Findings and Implications

Chapter 2 Introduction

Chapter 3 Measures of Vulnerability

Chapter 4 Preferential Flow Pathways

Chapter 5 Vulnerability Assessment Examples

Chapter 6 Conclusions—Opportunities and Challenges

References Cited


Appendix TOOLBOX

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