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Quality of Ground Water

For the Nation as a whole, the chemical and biological character of ground water is acceptable for most uses. The quality of ground water in some parts of the country, particularly shallow ground water, is changing as a result of human activities. Ground water is less susceptible to bacterial pollution than surface water because the soil and rocks through which ground water flows screen out most of the bacteria. Bacteria, however, occasionally find their way into ground water, sometimes in dangerously high concentrations. But freedom from bacterial pollution alone does not mean that the water is fit to drink. Many unseen dissolved mineral and organic constituents are present in ground water in various concentrations. Most are harmless or even beneficial; though occurring infrequently, others are harmful, and a few may be highly toxic.

Water is a solvent and dissolves minerals from the rocks with which it comes in contact. Ground water may contain dissolved minerals and gases that give it the tangy taste enjoyed by many people. Without these minerals and gases, the water would taste flat. The most common dissolved mineral substances are sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, and sulfate. In water chemistry, these substances are called common constituents.

Water typically is not considered desirable for drinking if the quantity of dissolved minerals exceeds 1,000 mg/L (milligrams per liter). Water with a few thousand mg/L of dissolved minerals is classed as slightly saline, but it is sometimes used in areas where less-mineralized water is not available. Water from some wells and springs contains very large concentrations of dissolved minerals and cannot be tolerated by humans and other animals or plants. Many parts of the Nation are underlain at depth by highly saline ground water that has only very limited uses.

Dissolved mineral constituents can be hazardous to animals or plants in large concentrations; for example, too much sodium in the water may be harmful to people who have heart trouble. Boron is a mineral that is good for plants in small amounts, but is toxic to some plants in only slightly larger concentrations.

Water that contains a lot of calcium and magnesium is said to be hard. The hardness of water is expressed in terms of the amount of calcium carbonate-the principal constituent of limestone-or equivalent minerals that would be formed if the water were evaporated. Water is considered soft if it contains 0 to 60 mg/L of hardness, moderately hard from 61 to 120 mg/L, hard between 121 and 180 mg/L, and very hard if more than 180 mg/L. Very hard water is not desirable for many domestic uses; it will leave a scaly deposit on the inside of pipes, boilers, and tanks. Hard water can be softened at a fairly reasonable cost, but it is not always desirable to remove all the minerals that make water hard. Extremely soft water is likely to corrode metals, although it is preferred for laundering, dishwashing, and bathing.

Ground water, especially if the water is acidic, in many places contains excessive amounts of iron. Iron causes reddish stains on plumbing fixtures and clothing. Like hardness, excessive iron content can be reduced by treatment. A test of the acidity of water is pH, which is a measure of the hydrogen-ion concentration. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. A pH of 7 indicates neutral water; greater than 7, the water is basic; less than 7, it is acidic. A one unit change in pH represents a 10-fold difference in hydrogen-ion concentration. For example, water with a pH of 6 has 10 times more hydrogen-ions than water with a pH of 7. Water that is basic can form scale; acidic water can corrode. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criteria, water for domestic use should have a pH between 5.5 and 9.

In recent years, the growth of industry, technology, population, and water use has increased the stress upon both our land and water resources. Locally, the quality of ground water has been degraded. Municipal and industrial wastes and chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides not properly contained have entered the soil, infiltrated some aquifers, and degraded the ground-water quality. Other pollution problems include sewer leakage, faulty septic-tank operation, and landfill leachates. In some coastal areas, intensive pumping of fresh ground water has caused salt water to intrude into fresh-water aquifers.

How intensive ground-water pumping can cause salt-water intrusion in coastal aquifers

How intensive ground-water pumping can cause salt-water intrusion in coastal aquifers.

In recognition of the potential for pollution, biological and chemical analyses are made routinely on municipal and industrial water supplies. Federal, State, and local agencies are taking steps to increase water-quality monitoring. Analytical techniques have been refined so that early warning can be given, and plans can be implemented to mitigate or prevent water-quality hazards.

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