Local groundwater quality study adds to U.S. research

LOCK HAVEN — The results of a United States Geological Survey study on groundwater quality in private wells in Clinton County last summer will soon be public.

The study was headed by hydrologist John Clune and geochemist Charles Cravotta, both of the USGS Pennsylvania Water Science Center. The center completed similar studies recently in Bradford, Lycoming, Wayne and Pike counties.

“We’re really trying to understand the water quality throughout Pennsylvania, especially in rural areas,” said Clune.

Though federally funded, USGS is not a regulatory agency. Its goal is to provide objective scientific information to resource managers, planners and other state and county entities. The water science center runs both national and cooperative research.

“Our funding and our work is directly tied to a need in the community,” said Clune.

For the Clinton County groundwater quality study, Clune and his team divided the county into 54 different cells and randomly selected a private well within each cell.

After selecting the wells, they verified the construction of each, documenting how deep they were and what rock they were made of.

Then they sent the results to laboratories to be analyzed, both chemically and comparatively against EPA drinking water standards.

Private wells in Pennsylvania are not regulated by drinking water standards, but Clune said the EPA guidelines could be helpful in identifying contamination levels in groundwater sources that could cause adverse health effects.

Clune said homeowners often may not realize their water quality is being affected by local bacteria around their wells or their piping systems. He said corrosive water (water with a low pH) can leach copper or lead from a piping system and contaminate the water.

“A lot of times when someone has something wrong with their water, they’re quick to blame things they see down the road,” he said, like farms and factories.

But in reality, it may be well upkeep or piping problems.

Pennsylvania is one of two states that has no well construction standards, which may also cause contamination, Clune said.

But the recent Clinton County study surveys groundwater quality, not tap water quality, which means Clune and his team had to take water samples very close to the well head.

Though Clune cannot release any study results definitively, he said the Clinton County study revealed elevated levels of bacteria and nitrates in a limestone valley.

However, he said “limestone areas throughout Pennsylvania…are often prone to more contaminants.”

The results from Clinton County, he said, should be fairly consistent with the results from Bradford, Lycoming, Wayne and Pike counties.

In those counties, there were several wells with elevated levels of arsenic and about 20 percent sampled had elevated levels of fecal coliform and E. coli.

Clune said his team also sampled for volatile organic compounds, found commonly in paints, chemical products and industrial work.

“We don’t find many, which is good,” he said.

The sample from Bradford County only had three detections of VOCs. He expected to find that many in Clinton County.

There were several cases of high nitrate in well water and high nitrogen coming out of streams.

Next year, USGS will launch a follow-up study of Fishing Creek and its tributaries using synoptic sampling to identify potential sources of contamination.

Using a new instrument that measures nitrate on-site, instantaneously, they can track where the nitrogen is coming from in order to identify potential sources, such as chemicals, natural, agricultural or septic, for the county Conservation District to target.

They will sample during high base flow in the spring and low base flow in the fall in order to get a more complete groundwater sample.

The results of the Clinton County groundwater quality study will be made public in January, when homeowners whose wells were sampled will be notified. In March, there will be a public meeting discussing the results of the study.

“In general, it’s a great thing Clinton County has done,” said Clune. He commended the county for being “forward-thinking” in welcoming research on groundwater and stream quality.

Correction: USGS Hydrologist John Clune’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.