The quality of shallow ground water underlying unsewered low-density development outside of Sheridan and Lander, Wyo., and Red Lodge, Mont., was evaluated. In 2001, 29 wells (10 each in Sheridan and Lander and 9 in Red Lodge) were installed at or near the water table and sampled for a wide variety of constituents to identify potential effects of human activities on shallow ground-water quality resulting from development on the land surface. All wells were completed in unconfined aquifers in unconsolidated deposits of Quaternary age with shallow water tables (less than 50 feet below land surface). Land use and land cover was mapped in detail within a 500-meter radius surrounding each well, and potential contaminant sources were inventoried within the radii to identify human activities that may affect shallow ground-water quality. This U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment ground-water study was conducted to examine the effects of unsewered low-density development that often surrounds cities and towns of many different sizes in the western United States?a type of development that often is informally referred to as ?exurban? or ?rural ranchette? development. This type of development has both urban and rural characteristics. Residents in these developments typically rely on a private ground-water well for domestic water supply and a private septic system for sanitary waste disposal.
Although the quality of shallow ground water generally was suitable for domestic or other uses without treatment, some inorganic constituents were detected infrequently in ground water in the three study areas at concentrations larger than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water standards or proposed standards. Natural factors such as geology, aquifer properties, and ground-water recharge rates likely influence most concentrations of these constituents. These inorganic constituents generally occur naturally in the study areas and were more likely to limit suitability of water for drinking or other intended uses rather than any constituents suspected of being introduced as a result of human activities.
Effects of human activities associated with low-density development, such as septic systems; fertilizer and pesticide use on pastures, lawns and gardens; manure from horses, cattle, and pets; and increases in road construction and vehicular traffic, were minimal at the time of sampling (2001) but were apparent in the presence of a few types of constituents in shallow ground water. Concentrations of nitrate generally were less than a national background level (1.1 milligrams per liter) assumed to indicate effects from human activities. Total coliform bacteria were detected infrequently (in samples from three wells), and Escherichia coli were not detected in samples from a subset of wells. Trace concentrations of methylene blue active substances (ingredients in laundry detergents) were detected at concentrations slightly greater than laboratory reporting levels in samples from 11 wells, but it is unclear if the detections are indicative of natural sources or possible aquifer contamination from septic-tank effluent. Pesticides were detected in both the Sheridan and Lander, Wyo., study areas. Volatile organic compounds were detected very infrequently in all three study areas. Most pesticides and volatile organic compounds were found in water from a few wells in each study area, and commonly as mixtures. The primary exception to this generalization was the relatively widespread detection of the pesticide prometon at trace levels in the Sheridan and Lander study areas. Concentrations of pesticides and volatile organic compounds generally were small and always were smaller than applicable drinking-water standards. Detections of all constituents indicating possible human effects on shallow ground-water quality were consistent with overlying land use mapped during the study, and potential sources of contamination inventoried du