Groundwater Quality in Relation to Drinking Water Health Standards and Hydrogeologic and Geochemical Characteristics for 47 Domestic Wells in Potter County, Pennsylvania, 2017

Scientific Investigations Report 2020-5038
Prepared in cooperation with the County of Potter
By: , and 



As part of a regional effort to characterize groundwater in rural areas of Pennsylvania, water samples from 47 domestic wells in Potter County were collected from May through September 2017. The sampled wells had depths ranging from 33 to 600 feet in sandstone, shale, or siltstone aquifers. Groundwater samples were analyzed for physicochemical properties that could be evaluated in relation to drinking-water health standards, geology, land use, and other environmental factors. Laboratory analyses included concentrations of major ions, nutrients, bacteria, trace elements, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ethylene and propylene glycol, alcohols, gross-alpha/beta-particle activity, uranium, radon-222, and dissolved gases. A subset of samples was analyzed for radium isotopes (radium-226 and -228) and for the isotopic composition of methane.

Results of this 2017 study show that groundwater quality generally met most drinking-water standards that apply to public water supplies. However, a percentage of samples exceeded maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for total coliform bacteria (69.6 percent), Escherichia coli (30.4 percent), arsenic, and barium; and secondary maximum contaminant levels (SMCLs) for field pH, manganese, sodium, iron, total dissolved solids, aluminum, and chloride. All of the analyzed VOCs were below limits of detection and associated drinking water criteria. Radon-222 activities exceeded the proposed drinking-water standard of 300 picocuries per liter in 80.9 percent of the samples.

The field pH of the groundwater ranged from 4.6 to 9.0. Generally, the lower pH samples had greater potential for elevated concentrations of dissolved metals, including beryllium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc, whereas the higher pH samples had greater potential for elevated concentrations of total dissolved solids, sodium, fluoride, boron, and uranium. Near-neutral samples (pH 6.5 to 7.5) had greater hardness and alkalinity concentrations than other samples with pH values outside this range. Calcium/bicarbonate waters were the predominant hydrochemical type for the sampled aquifers, with mixed water types for many samples, including variable contributions from calcium, magnesium, and sodium combined with bicarbonate, sulfate, chloride, and nitrate.

Water from 45 wells had concentrations of methane greater than the 0.0002 milligrams per liter (mg/L) detection limit. One sample had the maximum value of 11 mg/L, which exceeds the Pennsylvania action level of 7 mg/L. Additionally, three other samples had concentrations of methane greater than 4 mg/L. Outgassing of such levels of methane from the water to air within a confined space can result in a potential hazard. The elevated concentrations of methane generally were associated with suboxic groundwater (dissolved oxygen less than 0.5 mg/L) that had near-neutral to alkaline pH with relatively elevated concentrations of iron, manganese, ammonia, lithium, fluoride, and boron. Other constituents, including barium, sodium, chloride, and bromide, commonly were elevated, but not limited to, those well-water samples with elevated methane. Low levels of ethane (as much as 1.2 mg/L) were present in eight samples with the highest methane concentrations. Five samples were analyzed for methane isotopes. The isotopic and hydrocarbon compositions in these five samples suggest the methane may be of microbial origin or a mixture of thermogenic and microbial gas, but differed from the compositions reported for mud-gas logging samples collected during drilling of gas wells.

The concentrations of sodium (median 8.2 mg/L), chloride (median 7.64 mg/L), and bromide (median 0.02 mg/L) for the 47 groundwater samples collected for this study ranged widely and were positively correlated with one another and with specific conductance and associated measures of ionic strength. Sixty percent of the Potter County well-water samples had chloride concentrations less than 10 mg/L. Samples with higher chloride concentrations had variable bromide concentrations and corresponding chloride/bromide ratios that are consistent with sources such as road-deicing salt and septic effluent (low bromide) or brine (high bromide). Brines are naturally present in deeper parts of the regional groundwater system and, in some cases, may be mobilized by gas drilling. It is also possible that valley wells were drilled close to or into the brine-freshwater interface, so brine signatures do not necessarily indicate contamination due to drilling. The chloride, bromide, and other constituents in road-deicing salt or brine solutions tend to be diluted by mixing with fresh groundwater in shallow aquifers used for water supply. Although 1 of 8 groundwater samples with the highest methane concentrations (greater than 0.2 mg/L) had concentrations of chloride and bromide with corresponding chloride/bromide ratios that indicated mixing with road-deicing salt, the other 7 of 8 samples with elevated methane had concentrations of chloride and bromide with corresponding chloride/bromide ratios that indicated mixing with a small amount of brine (0.02 percent or less) similar in composition to those reported for gas and oil well brines in Pennsylvania. In several eastern Pennsylvania counties where gas drilling is absent, groundwater with comparable chloride/bromide ratios and chloride concentrations have been reported. Approximately 50 percent of Potter County well-water samples, including two samples with the fourth (72.9 mg/L) and fifth (47.0 mg/L) highest chloride concentrations, have chloride/bromide ratios that indicate predominantly anthropogenic sources of chloride, such as road-deicing salt or septic effluent.

Suggested Citation

Galeone, D.G., Cravotta, C.A., III, and Risser, D.W., 2020, Groundwater quality in relation to drinking water health standards and hydrogeologic and geochemical characteristics for 47 domestic wells in Potter County, Pennsylvania, 2017: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2020–5038, p.67,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Study Methods
  • Groundwater Quality and Comparison to Drinking Water Health Standards
  • Relation of Groundwater Quality to Hydrogeologic and Geochemical Characteristics
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1
  • Appendix 2
  • Appendix 3
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Groundwater quality in relation to drinking water health standards and hydrogeologic and geochemical characteristics for 47 domestic wells in Potter County, Pennsylvania, 2017
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2020-5038
DOI 10.3133/sir20205038
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Pennsylvania Water Science Center
Description Report: viii, 67 p.; 2 Appendixes, Data Release
Country United States
State Pennsylvania
County Potter County
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details