Water Quality and Management of Private Drinking Water Wells in Pennsylvania

Article excerpt


Over three million Pennsylvania residents rely on private wells for drinking water and approximately 10,000 new water wells are drilled annually throughout Pennsylvania. Residents utilizing private or small, semi-public wells are typically those most vulnerable to waterborne illnesses (Craun, 1986), and the presence of disease-causing bacteria has been documented in private wells throughout Pennsylvania (Lindsey, Rasberry, & Zimmerman, 2002; Swistock & Sharpe, 2005). Yet Pennsylvania remains one of the few states where private water wells are not regulated.

Various studies have linked water quality in groundwater wells to well construction (Swistock & Sharpe, 2005; Zimmerman, Zimmerman, & Lindsey, 2001), the proximity of wells to pollution sources (Swistock, Sharpe, & Robillard, 1993), climatic conditions (Swistock & Sharpe, 2005), and geology (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 2004). These studies have reported that 15% to 50% of wells fail at least one safe drinking water standard.

The combination of a large population using private water wells along with the lack of statewide regulations and apparent prevalence of water quality problems have created a strong need for research and associated education efforts in Pennsylvania (Mancl, Sharpe, & Makuch, 1989; Swistock, Sharpe, & Dickison, 2001). As a result, Penn State Cooperative Extension created the Master Well Owner Network (MWON) program, a group of over 400 trained volunteers who have educated over 30,000 private water well owners in the state (Clemens, Swistock, & Sharpe, 2007). Despite these efforts, more information is needed to determine the prevalence and causes of water well quality problems along with current management strategies to assist lawmakers and water supply owners with proper strategies to protect groundwater supplies. The overall objective of our study was to investigate the causes of private well water contamination in Pennsylvania and evaluate the need for policy and education guidelines to improve drinking water quality.


MWON volunteers who had received training on sample collection and water testing methods collected samples from 450 private wells in 2006 and 251 wells in 2007, for a total of 701 water wells. Water wells were distributed regionally ranging from 61 in the sparsely populated northwest region of the state to 167 in the northeast region. A minimum distance of 1.6 km between water wells was used to maximize spatial distribution across the state. Selection of all study sites/participants was done by MWON volunteers, regional coordinators, Penn State Cooperative Extension educators, and project staff. Seventy-nine wells were owned by experienced MWON volunteers and 622 were owned by recently trained MWON volunteers or other homeowners. Experienced MWON volunteers may have improved their well management as a result of previous training; therefore, their results were analyzed separately from the results of other homeowners. Recently trained MWON volunteer and other homeowner wells were considered representative of typical private wells throughout Pennsylvania.

Regional workshops were organized to efficiently collect water samples for delivery to the water testing laboratory at Penn State University. Volunteers collected water samples from each well on the morning of the workshop into sterile containers. Two water samples were collected from each home including a first draw sample from the kitchen faucet and a running water sample from an untreated tap. Volunteers received training on collecting raw water samples since more than 50% of the water supplies sampled had existing water treatment equipment (mostly softeners and sediment filters). Samples were stored on ice and returned to the workshop location where field measurements of pH and triazine pesticides were made by project personnel within a few hours of sample delivery. …