Characterization of Ambient Groundwater Quality Within a Statewide, Fixed-Station Monitoring Network in Pennsylvania, 2015–19

Scientific Investigations Report 2021-5119
Prepared in cooperation with Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
By:  and 



Pennsylvania leads the Nation in the number of individuals that use groundwater for private domestic water supply; more than 3 million rural and suburban Pennsylvania residents rely on private domestic supplies for drinking water. These supplies are not regulated nor routinely monitored; thus relevant groundwater-quality information is not widely available. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PaDEP) Safe Drinking Water Bureau, established a statewide, fixed-station ambient groundwater quality network in 2015. The goals for the Pennsylvania Groundwater Monitoring Network (GWMN) include characterizing ambient groundwater quality conditions in rural areas of the State and documenting potential changes in conditions over time. Seventeen wells were selected for monitoring at 6-month intervals beginning in 2015. Since then, several wells have been added to the GWMN, bringing the total number of wells sampled in the fall of 2019 to 28. Routinely monitored constituents included physical characteristics and chemical concentrations in filtered and unfiltered samples (major and trace elements, nutrients, and organic compounds). Samples for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), radionuclides, and dissolved hydrocarbon gases were collected during the first sampling event at each well.

To offer insights on the quality of groundwater used for domestic supply in Pennsylvania, summary statistics for the 221 GWMN samples collected during 2015–19 are compared to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking-water standards, which are applicable to public water supplies. Results show that samples across the GWMN generally meet drinking-water standards for inorganic and organic constituents; however, a percentage of samples had concentrations that exceeded maximum contaminant level (MCL) thresholds for nitrate (3 percent) and secondary maximum contaminant level (SMCL) thresholds for iron (32 percent), manganese (36 percent), and aluminum (5 percent). Radon-222 activities, which were sampled only during the initial visit to a well, exceeded the lower proposed drinking water standard of 300 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) in 64 percent of wells in the GWMN; additionally, 7 percent of wells exceeded the higher proposed standard of 4,000 pCi/L. There were no exceedances for VOCs, but one well had a tribromomethane detection. Three wells had detectable concentrations of methane, with one sample exceeding the Pennsylvania action level of 7 milligrams per liter (mg/L).

The pH and dissolved oxygen concentrations varied widely across the GWMN and were correlated with dissolved metal concentrations and other chemical characteristics of groundwater samples. Considering all samples collected for the study, the pH ranged from 4.2 to 8.3; 42 percent of pH values were either above or below the SMCL range of 6.5–8.5. The highest pH values resulted from contamination of loose grout used in the construction of one well and decreased to levels consistent with other wells in the vicinity after repeated sampling rounds. Dissolved oxygen (DO), which ranged from 0 to 13.9 mg/L, influences the mobility and prevalence of constituents with variable oxidation state, including iron, manganese, and nitrogen species. Samples with acidic pH (less than 6.5) and (or) low DO had the highest concentrations of manganese and iron, whereas those with neutral to alkaline pH values had the highest concentrations of calcium, magnesium, sodium, and other major ions. Analysis of major ions indicates that calcium/bicarbonate water types are the most common, with a few characterized as calcium/chloride or sodium/chloride, and most others as mixed water types including calcium-magnesium/bicarbonate, sodium-magnesium/bicarbonate, and sodium/bicarbonate-chloride.

Nonparametric statistical methods were used to evaluate the data for spatial and temporal trends. A principal components analysis (PCA) model developed with ranked data values for the entire network resulted in three components, (1) dissolved solids, (2) redox, and (3) sodium-chloride, which explained 74.5 percent of variance in the dataset. On the basis of individual contributions to the PCA, certain wells were identified through hierarchical cluster analysis that shared relevant water-quality characteristics. The spatial distribution of sampling locations and the temporal trends of constituent concentrations indicate that hydrogeologic setting and topographic position as defined in the PCA model are important factors affecting the spatial and temporal patterns of groundwater quality in the GWMN.

Suggested Citation

Conlon, M.D., and Duris, J.W., 2022, Characterization of ambient groundwater quality within a statewide, fixed-station monitoring network in Pennsylvania, 2015–19: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2021–5119, 118 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Status of Groundwater Quality Constituents
  • Statistical Analysis of Groundwater Quality Data
  • Considerations for Future Work
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Supplemental information for wells from the Pennsylvania Groundwater Monitoring Network
  • Appendix 2. Analytical methods used by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Laboratories
  • Appendix 3. Distributions of continuous variables for wells from the Pennsylvania Groundwater Monitoring Network
  • Appendix 4. Correlation matrix of selected constituents and PDSI values for wells from the Pennsylvania GWMN wells
  • Appendix 5. Seasonal differences in water-quality constituents measured in selected Pennsylvania GWMN wells
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Characterization of ambient groundwater quality within a statewide, fixed-station monitoring network in Pennsylvania, 2015–19
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2021-5119
DOI 10.3133/sir20215119
Year Published 2022
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Pennsylvania Water Science Center
Description Report: x, 118 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State Pennsylvania
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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