The U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program found, in studies from 1991 to 2001, low levels of mixtures of contaminants in ground water near the water table in urban areas across the Nation. Although contaminants were detected less frequently in deeper ground water typically developed for public supply the proximity of contaminant mixtures to underlying public-water-supply sources prompted the NAWQA Program to begin, in 2001, an intensive study to assess the vulnerability of public-supply wells to contamination. As part of this study, the pathways and processes by which contaminants reach public-supply wells in nine aquifer systems across the country are being investigated. In addition to studying the processes that occur below land surface—whereby contaminants are mobilized or attenuated—scientists are also investigating how human activities can affect the vulnerability of public-supply wells to contamination.
This fact sheet highlights findings from two reports on the vulnerability study of a single, representative public-supply well in York, Nebraska. The selected high-capacity well typically produces more than 720,000 gallons per day from the upper confined aquifer of the High Plains aquifer. A possible source of contamination to the well is intensive, irrigated agriculture, which can sometimes result in elevated concentrations of nitrate and pesticides in ground water. In addition, a sampling of the selected public-supply well by the USGS in 2002 found low concentrations of the solvents trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and their degradation products, which may be linked to historical chemical use in urban and residential areas of York. Uranium and arsenic (which occur naturally in the sediments that make up the aquifers in the area) also were detected in 2002 at concentrations less than drinking-water standards but still of concern.
Overall, the current NAWQA study found that three primary factors affect the movement and fate of contaminants and the vulnerability of the public-supply well in York: (1) timing of water entry (recharge) to the aquifer, (2) short-circuiting of natural flow paths through inactive wells, and (3) natural geochemical conditions of the aquifer. Study findings are intended to help water managers, drinking-water suppliers, policymakers, and scientists to better understand how and why contamination of public-supply wells occurs and whether water quality may improve or degrade. Additionally, study findings may be used to evaluate various pumping, resource-development, and land-management scenarios.