Crystalline bedrock aquifers in New England and parts of New Jersey and New York (NECR aquifers) are a major source of drinking water. Because the quality of water in these aquifers is highly variable, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) statistically analyzed chemical data on samples of untreated groundwater collected from 117 domestic bedrock wells in New England, New York, and New Jersey, and from 4,775 public-supply bedrock wells in New England to characterize the quality of the groundwater. The domestic-well data were from samples collected by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program from 1995 through 2007. The public-supply-well data were from samples collected for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Program from 1997 through 2007. Chemical data compiled from the domestic wells include pH, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, and turbidity; 6 nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, 14 major ions, 23 trace elements, 222radon gas (radon), 48 pesticide compounds, and 82 volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Additional samples were collected from the domestic wells for the analysis of gross alpha- and gross beta-particle radioactivity, radium isotopes, chlorofluorocarbon isotopes, and the dissolved gases methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon. Chemical data compiled from the public-supply wells include pH, specific conductance, nitrate, iron, manganese, sodium, chloride, fluoride, arsenic, uranium, radon, combined radium (226radium plus 228radium), gross alpha-particle radioactivity, and methyl tert-butyl ether (MtBE). Patterns in fluoride, arsenic, uranium, and radon distributions were discernable when the data were compared to lithology groupings of the bedrock, indicating that the type of bedrock has an effect on the quality of groundwater from NECR aquifers. Fluoride concentrations were significantly higher in groundwater samples from the alkali granite, peraluminous granite, and metaluminous granite lithology groups than from samples in the other lithology groups. Water samples from 1.4 percent of 2,167 studied wells had fluoride concentrations that were equal to or greater than the maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 4 milligrams per liter (mg/L) and 7.5 percent of the wells had fluoride concentrations that were equal to or greater than the secondary MCL of 2 mg/L. For arsenic, groundwater samples from the calcareous metasedimentary rocks in the New Hampshire-Maine geologic province, peraluminous granite, and pelitic rocks lithology groups had higher concentrations than did samples from the other lithology groups. Water samples from 13.3 percent of 2,054 studied wells had arsenic concentrations that were equal to or greater than the MCL of 10 micrograms per liter (μg/L), about double the national rate of occurrence in community-supply systems and in domestic wells of the United States. Uranium concentrations were significantly higher in groundwater samples from the peraluminous granite, alkali granite, and calcareous metasedimentary rocks in the New Hampshire-Maine geologic province lithology groups than from samples in the other lithology groups. Water samples from 14.2 percent of 556 studied wells had uranium concentrations equal to or greater than the MCL of 30 μg/L. Radon activities were equal to or greater than the proposed MCL of 300 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) in 95 percent of 943 studied wells, and 33 percent of the wells had radon activities were equal to or greater than the proposed alternative maximum contaminant level (AMCL) of 4,000 pCi/L. Radon activities exceeded the proposed AMCL in 20 percent or more of groundwater samples in each of the studied lithology groups with a minimum of 9 samples, but radon activities were significantly higher in groundwater samples from the alkali granite, peraluminous granite, and Narragansett basin metasedimentary rocks lithology groups. Water samples from 3.2 percent of 564 studied wells had combined radium activities equal to or greater than the MCL of 5 pCi/L; however, combined radium activities were not significantly different among the studied lithology groups. Land use and population density also were evaluated to explain patterns in water quality. Concentrations of nitrate, sodium, chloride, and MtBE from the studied wells were significantly greater in areas of high population density (=50 persons per square kilometer) than in areas of low population density (<50 persons per square kilometer). Concentrations of sodium, chloride, and MtBE from the studied wells were significantly greater in areas classified as developed (urban lands) than in areas classified as undeveloped (forested), agricultural, or mixed (no dominant land use). Nitrate concentrations from the public-supply wells were not significantly different among the four land use categories, but nitrate concentrations from the domestic wells were significantly greater in areas classified as developed than in areas classified as undeveloped, agricultural, or mixed. Chloride to bromide mass ratios in the domestic well samples indicate that the groundwater was probably affected by at least three halogen sources: local precipitation and recharge waters, remnant seawater and connate waters evolved from seawater, and recharge waters affected by road salt. The groundwater in the NECR aquifers generally contained low concentrations of nitrate, VOCs, and pesticides. Less than 1 percent of water samples from 4,781 studied wells had concentrations of nitrate greater than the MCL of 10 mg/L. Less than 1 percent of water samples from 1,299 studied wells exceeded the USEPA advisory level of 20 to 40 μg/L for MtBE. None of the other studied VOCs exceeded a human health benchmark. MtBE (36 percent frequency detection) and chloroform (32.9 percent frequency detection) were the most frequently detected (>0.02 μg/L) VOCs in the domestic wells. MtBE was detected more often in water samples with apparent ages of less than 25 years than in water samples with apparent ages greater than 25 years. This finding is consistent with the time period of high MtBE use in areas in the United States where reformulated gasoline was mandated. The largest pesticide concentration was an estimated concentration of 0.06 μg/L for the herbicide metolachlor. Deethylatrazine, a degradate of atrazine, (18 percent frequency detection) and atrazine (8 percent frequency detection) were the only pesticide compounds detected (>0.001 μg/L) in more than 3 percent of the domestic wells. None of the detected pesticide compounds exceeded human health benchmarks. Concentrations of nitrate and gross alpha-particle activities were significantly greater in the water samples from the domestic wells than in samples from the public-supply wells. Concentrations of sodium, chloride, iron, manganese, and uranium were significantly greater in the water samples from the public-supply wells than in the samples from the domestic wells. One possible explanation may be related to differences in field processing (filtered samples from the domestic wells compared to unfiltered samples from the public-supply wells). The high frequency of detections for a wide variety of manmade and naturally occurring contaminants in both domestic and public-supply wells shows the vulnerability of NECR aquifers to contamination. The highly variable water quality and the association with highly variable lithology of crystalline bedrock underscores the importance of testing individual wells to determine if concentrations for the most commonly detected contaminants exceed human health benchmarks.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Quality of water from crystalline rock aquifers in New England, New Jersey, and New York, 1995-2007