This fact sheet highlights findings from the vulnerability study of a public-supply well field in San Antonio, Texas. The well field consists of six production wells that tap the Edwards aquifer. Typically, one or two wells are pumped at a time, yielding an average total of 20-21 million gallons per day. Water samples were collected from public-supply wells in the well field and from monitoring wells installed along general directions of flow to the well field. Samples from the well field contained some constituents of concern for drinking-water quality, including nitrate; the pesticide compounds atrazine, deethylatrazine, and simazine; and the volatile organic compounds tetrachloroethene (also called perchloroethene, or PCE), chloroform, bromoform, and dibromochloromethane. These constituents were detected in untreated water at concentrations much less than established drinking-water standards, where such standards exist. Overall, the study findings point to four primary factors that affect the movement and fate of contaminants and the vulnerability of the public-supply well field in San Antonio, Texas: (1) groundwater age (how long ago water entered, or recharged, the aquifer), (2) fast pathways for flow of groundwater through features formed or enlarged by dissolution of bedrock, (3) recharge characteristics of the aquifer, and (4) natural geochemical processes within the aquifer. A computer-model simulation of groundwater flow and transport was used to estimate the traveltime (or age) of water particles entering public-supply well W4 in the well field. Modeled findings show that almost half of the water reaching the public-supply well is less than 2 years old. Such a large percentage of very young water indicates that (1) contaminants entering the aquifer may be transported rapidly to the well, (2) there is limited time for chemical reactions to occur in the aquifer that may attenuate contaminants, and (3) should recharge water become contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms (which have limited survival times in aquifers), the microorganisms may be able to persist to the well. Features formed or enlarged by dissolution of bedrock allow most of the water reaching the well field to travel rapidly from the recharge zone to the supply wells along fast pathways rather than through the aquifer matrix. Supporting evidence includes (1) geophysical logging and flowmeter measurements in public-supply well W4 and in nearby monitoring wells showing that most of the flow volume into and out of the wells occurs in three horizontal zones, thought to be dissolution-enlarged bedding planes; and (2) fluctuations in groundwater chemistry that can be correlated to individual precipitation events. Analysis of water samples collected from shallow, intermediate, and deep zones of the Edwards aquifer at public-supply well W4 and from nearby monitoring wells reveal that water in the vicinity of the selected well field is notably well mixed throughout the sampled thickness of the Edwards aquifer, showing little of the chemical variation with depth that is commonly seen in other aquifers. Contaminants were found at all depths, and they did not enter the well through a specific horizon. The well-mixed nature of the Edwards aquifer is caused by the recharge characteristics of the area combined with fast flow paths through karst features. Constituents of concern in the Edwards aquifer for the long-term sustainability of the groundwater resource include the nutrient nitrate and anthropogenic contaminants such as atrazine, PCE, and chloroform. A scenario of hypothetical contaminant loading in the aquifer recharge zone was evaluated by using results from groundwater-flow-model particle tracking to assess the response of the aquifer to potential contamination. Results indicate that the concentrations at public-supply well W4 would begin to respond to contaminant loading in the recharge zone within 1 year because of short traveltimes through fast flow paths. Within 10 years, contaminant concentrations in the public-supply well would be equal to 90 percent of the input concentration for a contaminant (such as nitrate) that does not degrade in the oxic conditions of the Edwards aquifer.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Assessing the vulnerability of public-supply wells to contamination—Edwards aquifer near San Antonio, Texas