Water--right up there with oxygen!



John H. Way, Ph.D., P.G.
Professor of Geology Emeritus
Lock Haven University of PA


Mission:  To advance the understanding of water resources among the citizens of Clinton County, PA




Clinton County No Longer Under Drought Watch Status


Real-Time United States Geological Survey Data


Frequently Asked Questions


Hyperlinked Key Terms


Hyperlinked Resources Addressing Water



Real-Time United States Geological Survey (USGS) Water Data

National Water Information System:  Web Interface

(Click on underlined category heading in the first column for the hot link)

Real-Time Water Data for the Nation Home page for the National Water Information System's Web Interface.
This site provides water data from the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Real-Time Water Data for PA County map of the Commonwealth displaying colored dots.  A dot represents a field site, and each is linked to that site's data pages.
Current Water Resources Conditions This "real-time streamflow" map tracks short-term changes (over several hours) in rivers and streams.  Hover over a colored dot for summary data or click it for detailed site data.
Streamflow Table grouped by Major Drainage Basin Several predefined displays can be configured using major river basin, county, or hydrologic unit (e.g., West Branch Susquehanna River).  Stations are listed in order of downstream input.  Data for each station include:  date, time, gage height, discharge, median flow, and temperature.
Streamflow Table grouped by County Six stations are listed from Clinton County within the West Branch Susquehanna River (WBSR) basin:  Kettle Creek, Cross Fork; Kettle Creek, Westport; WBSR, Renovo; Young Woman's Creek, Renovo; Bald Eagle Creek, Beech Creek Station; WBSR, Lock Haven.  (For reference, WBSR Jersey Shore, Lycoming County is included here.  Note: these data include the additional drainage input from the Bald Eagle and Pine Creek watersheds.)  Recognize that discharge data (in cubic feet per sec or cfs) in the second graph is useful in comparing one station with another.
Precipitation grouped by Major River Basin In Clinton County, only one USGS site provides precipitation data--a rain gage at Kettle Creek Lake at Kettle Creek Dam.  These web pages allow the user to generate tables and graphs using real-time precipitation as well as reservoir-elevation data for up to 31 days.

Ground Water Observation Well Data grouped by County

Data from the Clinton County Observation Well, located about 6 miles SSW of Renovo near State Camp in the Sproul State Forest, provides real-time ground-water data in feet below land surface datum (LSD).


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Frequently Asked Questions of Clinton Countians
(Click on the arrowhead to take you to the discussion)
1. In which watershed do I live? 
2. How does the water cycle operate relative to Clinton County? 
3. What makes fresh water such an important resource? 
4. What is the difference between ground water and surface water? 
5. Is there a relationship between the water table and the water level in my well? 
6. What is hard water and is it better or worse than soft water? 
7. My neighbor has a big family.  Does the water he pumps from his well affect the level of 
the water in my well? 
8. Should I be concerned about drinking water from a roadside spring? 
9. Why is it that during drought periods, some streams dry up while others continue to flow?
10. I'm on the local public water system.  How is that system structured, what is the source 
of that water, and how is it treated?
11. Are there specific pollutants that can affect our public drinking water supplies? 
12. Does acid rain affect the quality of our drinking water? 
13. Is bottled water safer and better than my tap water? 
14. My neighbor uses a company to fertilize his lawn, can that affect my well? 
15. I have a deep well.  Do I really need to test the water quality? 
16. For over 20 years, efforts and dollars aimed at reversing the declining health of the Chesapeake Bay have increased while reports paint grim pictures of worsening conditions.  Since the Susquehanna watershed is the principal supplier of water to the bay, what are the major sources of pollution, and what role does Clinton County have as a contributor?


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1)  In which watershed do I live?

Clinton County, PA, is fortunate to contain abundant water resources.  Many watersheds (a.k.a. drainage basin) either in part or whole fall within the outline of the county boundary.  Every drop of precipitation (rain, snow, sleet, hail, etc.) eventually flows out of the county via the West Branch Susquehanna River.  Every one of its tributaries, including Bald Eagle Creek, Beech Creek, Fishing Creek, Kettle Creek, Long Run, Sinnemahoning Creek, and Young Woman's Creek to name a few, ultimately moves water into the West Branch.

Each stream, whether it is a larger named or smaller unnamed stream, is surrounded by a watershed.  A divide, usually a upland surrounding the stream and illustrated above by the white line, serves to separate adjacent drainage basins.  Even if your home is in a town or city, you live in a watershed.  If you do not already know, consider it a challenge to identify the watershed in which you live, work, and play.

Many Clinton countians interested in conservation efforts currently participate in one of three watershed associations: Beech Creek, Sugar Valley, and Kettle Creek.  These citizens work together to address the environmental needs of these fragile catchment areas.

To learn more about our local watersheds, contact the Clinton County Conservation Office.


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2)  How does the hydrologic cycle operate relative to Clinton County?

The hydrologic cycle represents an idealized global model to aid us in understanding water circulation throughout the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the upper portions of the solid earth.  The term cycle is applied to indicate that, for all practical purposes, this is a closed-loop system; the planet neither gains or loses water.

Here in Clinton County, all water falling within the county's watersheds is constantly moving from higher elevations to lower elevations as both surface runoff and ground-water discharge.  Base level for this water is the West Branch Susquehanna River (WBSR).  And, contrary to oft-heard statements relative to the sources of our water, not a single drop of surface or ground-water (the water source for all our wells and springs) derives from outside of the WBSR watershed!

Once past Lock Haven, the WBSR flows northeast and south to the town of Northumberland where it joins the North Branch (water from the Chemung, Upper and Middle Susquehanna watersheds illustrated below) to form the main stem.  From there, the Susquehanna main stem flows generally south and enters the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay at Havre De Grace, MD.  Continuing its southward movement, the waters of the Chesapeake empty into the the Atlantic Ocean just north of Virginal Beach, VA.  Thus, the drainage basin of the Chesapeake Bay includes all of the Susquehanna River Watershed, including the West Branch and all of its tributaries.

The Subbasins of the Susquehanna River Watershed

The Susquehanna River is the largest drainage basin contributing to the Chesapeake Bay


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3)  What makes fresh water such an important resource?

This classic photograph of Earth was taken on December 7, 1972, by the Apollo 17 astronauts.

"I see the deep black of space and
this just brilliantly gorgeous
blue and white arc of the earth
and totally unconsciously,
not at all able to help myself, I said,
'Wow, look at that.'''


These words are those of Dr. Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, recalling what she said when she saw Earth from Challenger in 1984.

Nicknamed the "Blue Marble" by NASA, this spectacular image is the most detailed true-color image of the entire Earth to date.  Using a collection of satellite-based observations, scientists and visualizers stitched together months of observations of the land surface, oceans, sea ice, and clouds into a seamless, true-color mosaic of every square kilometer (0.386 square mile) of our planet.

Likely, a space traveler to our part of the Milky Way galaxy would have named this third planet from our sun for its blue water covering and not for the land masses.  About 97 percent of all Earth's water is in the oceans and is saline.  Although the remaining 3 percent is fresh, only a small amount of that water is available to the plants and animals of the planet, including us.

Surface water, as the name implies, comprises all of the fresh water that covers various portions of continents, such as rivers, swamps, and lakes.  These sources amount to significantly less than 1% of Earth's entire fresh-water supply!

Although 100 times more abundant, ground water becomes available for human use primarily through drilling.  Wells are expensive to develop, and there is no guarantee that enough water will be produced to address that need.  Think of well drilling as "mining" the ground-water supply.


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4)  What is the difference between ground water and surface water?

Here in Clinton County as elsewhere, precipitation, in any form, generates water that either infiltrates the soil and upper layers of bedrock as ground water or runs off the land as surface water.  There is also an interaction between ground water and surface water:  water in a lake, pond, or stream represents the level of the ground water table at the surface.

In cross section, the soil and rock that contains both air and water in the openings between grains and in the rock layers is the unsaturated zone (a.k.a. zone of aeration or vadose zone.  Below that is saturated zone where there is virtually no air only water in the soil and rock.



The water table defines the top of the saturated zone.  Unlike this idealized illustration, the water table varies in depth below the surface.  Its configuration generally follows the surface topography.

Where precipitation is abundant, ground water tends to be closer to the surface.  Where conditions are drier, it is deeper.  The ground water tables naturally rises and falls in response to wetter and drier meteorological conditions.  Pumping from wells can also affect its depth.

Notably, some wells in the desert southwest approach 2000 feet in depth, whereas in this area, wells rarely exceed 400 feet, and are more likely to be less than 200 feet deep.

Ground water is the largest source of available water within the United States, accounting for 97 percent of the available fresh water in the United States, and 23 percent of freshwater usage.


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5)  Is there a relationship between the water table and the water level in my well?

Hydrogeologists identify two types of aquifers:  unconfined and confined.  In the diagram above, the unconfined aquifer occurs immediately below the water table.  This is normally the target for well drillers, and, assuming that the bottom of your well is significantly below most water-table fluctuations, controlled by precipitation, the water table defines the static level of the water in your well.

If your well accesses a confined aquifer, the static water level in your well is controlled by the gradient (slope) of the aquifer in the confined zone and the volume of water moving through the aquifer.  Note that in this case, infiltration is minimized, and the amount of water is determined by the amount of recharge occurring up-gradient from your well.


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6)  What is hard water and is it better or worse than soft water?

The US Geological Survey reports that hard water is found in more than 85% of the country.  In fact, it is the most common problem reported by consumers throughout the country.

Water is the universal solvent.  There is virtually nothing that it cannot dissolve.  So, as water travels across the the land's surface and through the ground it slowly dissolves rocks and minerals and carries those components in solution downstream ultimately to the ocean.  Ocean water is "salty" because it contains all of those dissolved minerals.  Can you identify a naturally occurring element that is not contained in ocean water?

Carbonate rocks, limestone and dolostone, are common in Earth's crust.  Calcite and dolomite, the minerals that make up limestone and dolostone, dissolve easily.  As a result, surface and ground water flowing through carbonate terranes, such as in the County's valleys, e.g., Nittany, Sugar, Bald Eagle, and Nippenose, picks up calcium (Ca2+) and magnesium (Mg2+) ions and makes the water hard.  As the calcium and magnesium content increases, so does the hardness of the water.

One measure of water hardness is in grains per gallon of water (gpg).  One grain of hardness is the amount of calcium and magnesium equal in weight to a kernel of wheat.  On a scale beginning with 0, 0-1 grains (0-17.1 ppm or mg/L) is very soft and over 10.5 grains (>180 ppm or mg/L) is very hard.  Commercial test kits allow you to determine the hardness of your well water.  Public water suppliers provide water-quality data, including hardness, to their customers.

Hard water interferes with nearly every cleaning task.  Finding difficulty in lathering and shampooing in your shower, spots on your dishes and glassware, a poorly performing washing machine, and clogged pipes are all outcomes of having hard water.  Minerals precipitate as layers, commonly called scale, illustrated to the right.

However, aside from inconveniences, inefficiencies, and aesthetics, hard water is NOT unhealthy!  Actually, drinking hard water provides a small dietary supplement of calcium and magnesium.  And, some research suggests that harder water decreases cardiovascular disease; whereas, soft water can corrode metal pipes and generate elevated levels of cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc in the water.  Also, for those on salt-restricted diets, physicians often recommend against installing ion-exchange softening systems which substitute sodium for the calcium and magnesium.

What about soft water?  Where does it come from and why is it soft?  Soft water contains small quantities of dissolved minerals.  In Clinton County, the ridges from Bald Eagle Mountain south, i.e., those in the Ridge and Valley portion of the county, are underlain by conglomerate, sandstone, and siltstone units.  Here, these rock units are low in calcium and magnesium minerals and very high in quartz-rich minerals.  Water that flows down through the fractures and faults of these ridges moves swiftly and dissolves only minor amounts of mineral matter.  In addition, acid precipitation, both natural and anthropomorphically generated, are not buffered (made more alkaline) because of the composition of the rocks.  As a result, water derived from these ridge sources tends to be both acidic and soft.

To the north of the Bald Eagle Creek and West Branch valley, the rock units underlying the Appalachian Plateaus also contain abundant quartz-rich minerals.  However, some of these units contain minor amounts of calcium- and magnesium-rich minerals.  Therefore, water flowing down and out of the Plateaus can be harder and less acidic than water from the ridges of the Ridge and Valley.  A complication to this generality is the acid-mine drainage (AMD) that derives from the abandoned coal-mined areas and contributes large volumes of acidity, sulfates, and dissolved metals, including iron, manganese, and aluminum.  There is not enough natural alkalinity in the rock units to buffer the excess acidity of the mine-drainage effluent.  The abundance of the dissolved minerals and metals contributes to the hardness of this water from the Plateaus.

Scale (a.k.a. limescale) slowly accumulates in pipes and on surfaces exposed to hard water.  These deposits reduce the efficiency of appliances, such as your hot water heater or plumbing system.  A variety of commercial products are available to reduce or eliminate these build-ups.


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7)  My neighbor has a big family.  Does the water he pumps from his well affect the level of the water in my well?

As you pump water from your well, no matter where you live in the county, you have a direct affect on the local, ground-water system.  A three-dimensional zone of influence known as a "cone of depression" forms and depresses the water table around your well.  And, as ground water moves toward and into your well, you alter the direction of natural water movement.

How fast that cone develops, how large the zone of influence is, and how quickly the cone decreases in size after you stop pumping are all factors specific to each well.  The greater the volume of water you pump, the drawdown, the greater the width and steepness of the cone and the likelihood of lowering the ground water table in the area.

For small, domestic wells, the cone of depression is generally negligible; it is unlikely that adjacent private wells will create problems.  However, when wells are used for irrigation, industrial purposes, or as well fields are developed for multiple housing complexes and residential developments, the affect to the ground water system can be significant.


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8)  Should I be concerned about drinking water from a roadside spring?

Water "springs" from the ground almost anywhere.  In deserts, lush vegetation surrounds spring water in an oasis.  On a mountainside, water appears  mysteriously from beneath a rock to begin its long journey to the ocean.  And along interstates, ice-encrusted road-cuts in winter identify seeps and springs seemingly manifest from solid rock.

A spring marks a point where the ground-water table intersects Earth's surface.  Characterized either as perennial or ephemeral, water flow is dependent upon the constancy of its source, that is the precipitation that recharges the ground water feeding the spring.

As to the quality of spring water, let's first consider the definition of "pure water."  Pure water is pH neutral, neither acidic or basic.  It contains no minerals or ions, and is, therefore, odorless and tasteless.  It contains no organic matter, living or dead, including microbes, bacteria, spores, or fungi.  In effect, nature and natural processes preclude the possibility of pure water outside of a laboratory!  Pure water is generated typically  through multiple cycles of distillation, a process involving boiling the water and re-condensing the steam and collecting it in ultra-clean containers.

In spite of the scores of claims and legends attesting to the purity of spring water, ground water is not, nor ever was it, pure, and it can be just as contaminated as surface water.  Any pollutant, and that is a very long list of both natural and man-made substances, that can occur in surface water can occur in ground water.

As a bottom line here:  if you are unsure of the quality of the water you are drinking, whether it is from a spring or even your well, avoid it until you have read and understand the test results.

A father and son were filling gallon jugs from this roadside spring in the Pine Creek valley at the time of this photo.  The popular notion is that "natural" spring water like this is superior in quality to water from any other source and is fine to drink.  The perception of pure spring water flowing from pristine subterranean depths is a myth. 

There are no published water-quality data from this site, or most springs like this.  None of the governmental agencies responsible for testing public drinking-water supplies do any testing of roadside springs.

Historically, springs like these were revered as sources of high-quality water.  However, ground water is just as susceptible to contamination as surface water.  Spring water from sources like this poses a significant potential health risk!

The water quality of a spring's source can change fast.  Upstream, in the woods, any number of contaminants could lie hidden, including bags full of household garbage, animal feces and carcasses, discarded appliances, automobiles, even drums of hazardous or toxic chemicals.

Even the rocks and soil through which the water percolates can contain natural metals and radioactive elements that would affect water quality and render the water unfit to drink.

And, while boiling spring water may kill bacteria, it will not remove many of the harmful contaminants that could compromise your health.

This roadside spring west of Duboistown, along PA Route 654, Lycoming Co, is currently posted as a non-potable water source.


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9)  Why is it that during drought periods, some streams dry up while others continue to flow?

Two views of Fishing Creek in Nittany Valley at the Heltman Bridge between Mackeyville and Clintondale.  The photo on the left, taken in late June of 2006, shows nearly bank-full conditions.  The photo on the right, taken in late October of 2007, reveals a completely dry creek bed.  However, water continues to flow in Fishing Creek's channel both upstream as well as downstream from this location.

Blue lines on most topographic maps indicate streams which carry water throughout the year in well-defined channels; these are classified as perennial streams.  (Note: photo-revised USGS maps use purple to indicate any revisions to a previous edition, including a new road, building, bridge, or re-channeled stream.)  However, a perennial stream will dry up when there is insufficient precipitation to sustain continuous water flow in its bed.  These circumstances define a drought.

In the past six months (May through October, 2007), precipitation across much of central Pennsylvania ranged from 3 to 7 inches below normal.  A drought warning was issued on October 24, 2007 for Clinton County in response to low stream flows, below normal precipitation, and correspondingly lower ground water levels.

The hydrogeology of a stream allows us to examine and understand the response of a stream to periods of varying precipitation.  As illustrated and noted above, Fishing Creek, in northeastern Nittany Valley, southern Clinton County, continues to flow on the surface through most of its channel length.  However, some portions do not exhibit any surface water; this comes in response to an extended period of little or no rainfall in the region.  As it flows across this carbonate floored valley, there is direct communication between the surface water and the ground water systems.  Disappearing and emerging streams, sinkholes, and caverns characterize karst topography in carbonate terranes such as Nittany Valley.  Thus, the water table, normally at creek-bed level, has dropped below the surface, leaving this stretch of Fishing Creek as a dry creek bed.

Clinton County exhibits two additional stream types.  Intermittent streams flow in response to longer, wetter seasons, and will cease during dryer seasons.  These are represented on maps with a dashed and doted line Ephemeral streams, a third type, flow only in response to periodic heavy rainfall or snowmelt events sufficient to provide water to their less-well-defined channels.  While they are not represented on maps by blue lines, contour-line configurations indicate their presence.


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10)  I'm on the local public water system.  How is that system structured, what is the source of that water, and how is it treated?

Lock Haven City Water Department

The Lock Haven City Authority (LHCA), a.k.a. Water Department, (PWSID 4180048  Public Water Supplier Identifier) serves approximately 25,000 residents of Clinton County.  Approximately 3 million gallons of water per day (mgd) are distributed to residents of the City of Lock Haven, Castanea, and Wayne townships, and to the Lock Haven Suburban Water Authority (LHSWA) which services portions of Allison, Bald Eagle, Dunnstable, Lamar, and Woodward townships, as well as Flemington and Mill Hall boroughs.  Average daily demand is approximately 2.89 mgd with a maximum daily demand approximating 3.2 mgd.

McElhattan Run watershed

The LHCA's water source is surface water from the large McElhattan Run watershed, located in Crawford, Greene, Lamar, and Wayne townships in southeastern Clinton Co. (refer to the topographic map below).  Most of the watershed is forested and owned by either the City of Lock Haven or the Bureau of Forestry.  Remaining land use comprises:  agricultural (~8%) and residential (<1%), along with a few light-duty township and forestry roads.

LHCA's reservoirs

The city owns and maintains two reservoirs located within this drainage basin:  the ~558-million-gallon (Warren H.) Ohl (upper) and the ~92.4-million-gallon (Boyd P.) Keller (lower) reservoirs.  Raw water from Keller Reservoir flows approximately 10,000 feet through two transmission lines to the Central Clinton County Water Filtration Authority's (CCCWFA) plant in Wayne Township.  (Note: there is no piping linking the Ohl and Keller reservoirs.)  These reservoirs represent an estimated 217-day supply of non-potable-water reserve as part of the LHCA's drought contingency plan.

Source water-quality information

Lock Haven's Water Department's Annual Drinking Water Quality Report (2007) states:  "A Source Water Assessment of our source was completed in 2003 by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP).  The Assessment has found that our source is potentially most susceptible to contamination from agriculture practices, on-lot wastewater disposal, and transportation Corridors.  Overall, our source before treatment has a moderate risk of significant contamination."

To date, no point sources of pollution are located within the protection zones surrounding McElhattan Run.  In addition to those non-point sources listed above, trails made by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) have the potential to generate serious negative impacts to stream crossings, wetlands, and riparian buffers along stream margins.  Obviously, spills and leaks from these vehicles contribute hydrocarbon pollutants, and litter left by irresponsible riders are of concern.  Soil compaction and physical abrasion along trails produce dust and exacerbate erosion.  Off-trail riding, including using streams as trails, significantly expand the impact of these vehicles throughout the watershed.

CCCWFA'S treatment process

The CCCWFA plant's treatment of the raw water comprises conventional filtration technology involving (1) coagulation, (2) flocculation, and (3) sedimentation.  (1) A chemical coagulant is added to the source water to facilitate bonding among the particulates into larger bodies. (2) The coagulant-source water mixture is then slowly stirred inducing particles to collide and clump together into even larger and more easily removable clots, or “flocs.”  (3) Flocculated water is collected in a tank and the clumps settle to the bottom by gravity separation.  Subsequently, the water is disinfected by adding chlorine to kill any pathogenic organisms and filtered to remove virtually all of the particulates.

2007 WBSR water withdrawal

In October, 2007, Lock Haven began pumping from the West Branch Susquehanna River (WBSR) to ease a water shortage caused not only by protracted drought conditions but also from a state-mandated grouting project at Ohl Reservoir that necessitated a drawn-down from that facility.  This action required the Authority to buy piping and lease pumps, illustrated below.  From the river (X on the map above marks the withdrawal site), water was pumped to and treated at the CCCWFA's treatment plant.  Use of the Susquehanna River water ended as of November 18, 2007, when the Authority announced that water once again began flowing from the Keller Reservoir.  (Approximate costs:  fuel--$1,000/day, pump rental --$12,000/month.)

The characteristics of the two water sources differed, as many customers noted.  Among the water-quality variables monitored, the reservoir water is softer (a higher pH) compared to the harder (lower pH) water drawn from the WBSR.   Whether from the reservoir or from the river, however, the water supply must meet EPA- and state-mandated regulations governing drinking-water quality.

The bottom line with respect to source-water quality

It should be obvious that any public water supply, whether surface or well, which is not secured is subject to contamination from natural, accidental, and purposeful sources.  The Lock Haven City Authority proactively pursues source-water protection strategies maintaining an emergency response plan for its water system.


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11)  Are there specific pollutants that can affect our public drinking water supplies?

Strict Federal EPA laws, the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs), or Primary Standards, regulate public water systems.  These standards protect public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water.  The EPA's drinking water standards list of specific contaminants includes:  microorganisms, disinfection byproducts, disinfectants, inorganic and organic chemicals, and radionuclides.  For each, minimum contaminant levels (MCLs), health effects, and sources are listed as well.  In addition, a complete set of the regulations is linked to this site.

The City of Lock Haven's Water Department, generates an Annual Drinking Water Quality Report (2007) and makes these data available in both written and digital form, downloadable as a Word document from the Water Department's web page.  The data tables show the results of the City's monitoring for the period of January 1 to December 31, 2007.  It is well worth reviewing!

The City's 2007 report summarizes both the contaminants detected and the levels of those materials.  The chemical contaminants that derive from natural, source-area erosion include:  alpha emitters, nitrate, barium, and fluoride.  Turbidity, a measure of "cloudiness," indicates suspended particles in the water; these also derive from erosion of the source area.  The list includes by-products of drinking water chlorination and disinfection, lead and copper attributed to corrosion of household plumbing, and total organic carbon (T.O.C.) which can derive from the decay of natural organic matter and/or synthetic sources.  All contaminates have been detected in amounts below the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), defined as the highest level of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water using the EPA's drinking water standards.


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12)  Does acid rain affect the quality of our drinking water?

 A sandstone figure
over the portal of a castle built
in 1702 in Westphalia, Germany,
 photographed in 1908 (left) and
 again in 1968 (right). 
Acid rain, produced by pollution
 generated in the heavily
industrialized Ruhr region of
Germany, probably accounts for
 the severe damage. 

(Photos courtesy of
Herr Schmidt-Thomsen)

Acid rain clearly affects on anything on Earth's surface.  Yet, which type of acid rain are we discussing?  There are two types; one is naturally acidic rain, and the other is rain a result of anthropomorphic (man-made) causes, including the addition of sulfur and nitrogen compounds to the atmosphere.

In nature, as water droplets and ice crystals form to make clouds, they interact with carbon dioxide in the troposphere, the lower level of Earth's atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the most abundant gasses in our atmosphere, and it plays a vital role in the carbon cycle, including plant photosynthesis and animal respiration.  To us, perhaps the most familiar use of carbon dioxide is in soda and beer; it makes them fizzy.  As a gas, it is faintly acidic, and when it combines with water in the atmosphere, it forms carbonic acid (H2CO2).  Thus, throughout much of geologic history, natural carbonic acid has aided in the chemical weathering of rocks, minerals, and organic debris.  In addition, volcanic eruptions and decaying vegetation contribute large volumes of inorganic and organic compounds to the atmosphere, all of which aid in making rain acidic.

Emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and various nitrogen oxides (NOx) constitute the principal man-made initial sources of pollution which ultimately increase the acidity of rain water.  Burning fossils fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum) to generate electric power and gasoline and diesel combustion in cars and trucks are the chief culprits.  When SO2 and NOx react with water, oxygen, and other chemicals in the atmosphere, complex acidic compounds form, including solutions of sulfuric and nitric acids.  Winds carry these compounds as solids, liquids, and gasses across borders far from the initial generators. Acid rain has had profound effects on the flora and fauna throughout the northeastern US.  The waters and trees of Clinton County continue to be impacted by both wet and dry deposition as prevailing winds transport airborne acids and particulates from the high stacks of coal- and oil-fired power generating stations located hundreds of miles to our south and west.  In spit of efforts to clean smoke stack emissions and burn "cleaner coal," the fact remains that much of central Pennsylvania receives acidic rain with pH of 4.4 and below.


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13)  Is bottled water safer and better than my tap water?

Better, healthier, natural, refreshing, safer, and tastier are some of the imaginative adjectives companies apply to packaged water, whether we purchase it as bottled water by the bottle, six-pack, or case, or in cans, laminated boxes, or even plastic bags.  But, the critical question--is it?  Is bottled water superior to regulated water that comes from a drinking fountain or your faucet?

With the recent ascendancy of the popularity of bottled water, be aware that some companies blatantly stretch the truth on their labels.  Legally, bottled water, as well as "natural" and "spring" water can originate from municipal sources--filtered and treated tap water.  All bottled water must meet federal and state clean-drinking-water standards; it must be at least as contaminant-free as your tap water.  However, the FDA regulates only those packaged products which are generated in one state and travel across state lines; whereas, a large percentage of products remain within a particular state's boundaries, subject only to state regulations which may or may not be as rigid as federal standards.  Bottled water labels often can be a source of amusement, especially to a geologist or hydrogeologist well aware of marketers' "creative-writing" abilities.

What about "pure" water?  How does it compare to natural, spring, and mineral waters?  Pure water, that is liquid H2O, comprising only hydrogen and oxygen, really does not exist in nature.  Referred to by scientists as the "universal solvent," water will contain gases, liquids, and solids, traces of any materials from which it has been in contact.  Most of these are not harmful, and, in many cases, prove beneficial!

Pollutants, especially those classified as toxic or hazardous, pose health risks when they enter any drinking-water source, and these can go undetected because many lack odor and flavor.  Biologic contaminants, if present, are likely to increase the longer the water is stored, especially in high temperature environments.  Even physical hazards, including glass and metal chards, can easily be ingested because we rarely look carefully at the bottle before consuming the water.  Unless tested, unregulated water, no matter what its source, should be avoided.

As a final note, here are some numbers:

  • Estimated to be a 15+ billion dollar industry in the U.S. last year alone, bottled water has topped sales of iPods and movie tickets.

  • If the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run some $9,000.

  • The most commonly used plastic for making water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from crude oil.  Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel more than 1 million U.S. cars for a year.

  • According to the Container Recycling Institute, 86 percent of plastic water bottles used in the United States become garbage or litter.  Incinerating used bottles produces toxic byproducts such as chlorine gas and ash containing heavy metals.  Buried water bottles can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.

  • In a world in which 1 billion people have no reliable source of drinking water, and 3,000 children a day die from diseases caught from tainted water, the consumption of bottled water does provide some "food for thought!"

(Some relevant resources addressing bottled water include:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)


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14)  My neighbor uses a company to fertilize his lawn, can that affect my well?

A "growing" number of experts are calling into question the necessity of the myriad of lawn-care practices we have come to demand once the vernal equinox has passed.  Creating an environmentally safe and sustainable yard has many benefits, including reducing pollution to streams and our ground water.

EPA permits over 200 different pesticides to be used for lawn care, and these are often mixed together and sold as chemical combinations. They are intentionally toxic substances, designed to rid our lawns of weeds and pests we are told are undesirable.

Some chemicals commonly used on lawns and gardens have been associated with birth defects, mutations, adverse reproductive effects, and cancer in laboratory animals.  Children, infants, and fetuses may be especially vulnerable to the health effects of pesticides before the age of five, when their cells are normally reproducing most rapidly.

In addition to their health effects, there are ecological effects to their use as well.  Studies of major rivers and streams have documented that 100 percent of all surface water samples contained one or more pesticides at detectable levels.  It is inevitable that ground water is equally impacted.

The following facts were assembled by the Environment and Human Health Organization:

  • “Homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

  • 96 percent of all fish analyzed in major rivers and streams contained residues of one or more pesticides at detectable levels. (United States Geological Survey)
  • Some inert ingredients are suspected carcinogens; others have been linked to central nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage, birth defects, and some short-term health effects. (Attorney General’s Office of New York)
  • At least one pesticide was detected by USGS in more than 95 percent of stream samples collected at 115 sites.

The National Geographic's Environmental website carried an article titled--Nontoxic Lawn Care: Products and How-To's, with the following information:

 "As reported in Science (June 3, 2005), the pesticide methoxychlor and fungicide vinclozolin, both hormone-disrupting agents, have been shown to cause permanent, hereditary changes in mice, affecting male fertility for all four of the generations of mice tested. While the authors caution that the exposures that brought about these results are higher than environmental exposures, to be safe, avoid pesticides containing these chemicals.  Methoxychlor is an ingredient in a number of rose, bulb, and orchard sprays and dusts.  Vinclozolin is an ingredient in a fungicide for flowers and fruit trees."

Our lawns cannot be isolated from the other yards, homes, and people that live in our communities.  The chemicals we put on our lawns and gardens inevitably become part of our complex ecosystem.  Synthetic pesticides and fertilizer are not contained by property lines or fences, and if there's a way to migrate—and there always is—these chemicals will find a way out.  Intensive pesticide and fertilizer application, whether on lawns, parks, golf courses, or farms, results in someone else, downwind or downstream, sharing the burden.


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15)  I have a deep well.  Do I really need to test the water quality?

Some 2.5 million Pennsylvanians get their water from private, individual supplies, which are unregulated by state and federal government agencies.  Most of these private water supplies are wells fed by ground water.  And just because a water supply is pumped from underground, whether from a deep or a shallow well, there are no guarantees that the water from that well is safe and pollutant free.

There are about a million individual water supplies in the commonwealth, and about 20,000 new wells are drilled in Pennsylvania each year.  Every well, if not sited or constructed properly, provides a potential pathway for contaminants to enter groundwater.  In addition, the water itself could be contaminated from any of a number of sources, both above and below ground.

About half of the water wells that have been tested have at least one water-quality problem.  These range from aesthetic, such as staining or unpleasant taste, often related to secondary pollutants from the bedrock carrying the ground water, to legitimate health concerns arising from high levels of primary pollutants, including bacteria, nitrate, sulfate, or trace metals such as arsenic, lead, and zinc.  These primary contaminates can derive from nearby mining, agricultural, and manufacturing activities, as well as malfunctioning septic systems, and in central PA valleys, trash- and garbage-filled sinkholes.

To be sure private wells and other water sources are yielding drinking-quality water, it is imperative that water testing occurs periodically.  You should, at the very least, test for total coliform bacteria and E. coli bacteria on an annual basis.  Additional testing addresses such water-quality variables as hardness, total dissolved solids, corrosivity index, and specific trace elements and metals including iron, manganese, aluminum, copper, barium, cadmium, nickel, and mercury.

Water-testing services are available privately as well as from PSU's Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory, College of Agricultural Sciences, University Park, PA (814.863.0841).  Their web site provides a description of the lab's Drinking Water Testing Program along with a list of individual tests and costsA brochure describing PSU's "Drinking Water Testing Program" is available from Clinton County's Conservation Office in Mill Hall.


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16)  For over 20 years, efforts and dollars aimed at reversing the declining health of the Chesapeake Bay have increased while reports paint grim pictures of worsening conditions.  Since the Susquehanna watershed is the principal supplier of water to the bay, what are the major sources of pollution, and what role does Clinton County have as a contributor?

The Chesapeake Bay, encompassing 64,000 square miles of land, is the largest estuary in North America.  Its waters provide food and habitat for an abundance of fish and wildlife.  It serves as a highway for commerce, a playground, a storehouse of food, and a home for the 13 million people who live in its vast watershed.  But in recent years the Chesapeake has become less able to support the fish and wildlife it once did.  Increasing amounts of excess nutrients, sediment, and toxic substances are causing serious ecological problems in the Bay.  Studies show alarming declines in species of fish and wildlife and in the habitat available to them.  (A. Chesapeake Bay Primer, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The human population in the Chesapeake watershed is now growing by more than 170,000 residents annually. The cumulative impact of centuries of population growth (currently over 16 million) and landscape changes has taken its toll.  Despite significant advances in restoration efforts by a host of Bay Program partners (public, private, and NGO) through newly focused programs, legislation and/or funding, the Chesapeake Bay 2006 Health and Restoration Assessment reports show that the Bay's overall health remains degraded.

Anything capable of being carried by water, whether it be solids, such as sediment, plastics, street litter, yard and animal wastes, or liquids, including , pesticides, paint, fertilizer, oil and gasoline, can eventually enter the Bay. 

Here in Clinton County, both point and non-point sources of pollution affect water quality throughout the entire watershed.  Point sources, such as a gasoline spill, a new housing complex, a sewage treatment plant, or an industrial discharge pipe, tend to be the most obvious to spot and address.  However, it is the non-point sources, principally runoff from agricultural lands and acid mine drainage, that pose the most serious threats within our watersheds.



The largest non-point source of nitrogen delivered from Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay is from agriculture.

Point sources, including wastewater treatment plants, industrial discharges, and septic systems, all contribute excess nitrogen compounds to the West Branch Susquehanna River.

Molecular nitrogen (N2) is the largest constituent in Earth's atmosphere (78%).  Essential to all life, nitrogen must be converted from the molecular form to organic and inorganic compounds by biogeochemical processes in order to be used by plants and animals (nitrogen cycle).

Over time, human activities have altered dramatically all natural nutrient cycles.  Excess nitrogen  compounds act as pollutants in water bodies (eutrophication) principally through the conversion of forests to farm and urban land, agricultural practices, wastewater treatment, and combustion.

Here in Clinton County, nitrogen compounds runoff into surface water systems and leach into the ground water as a result of--
1) the application of nitrogen fertilizers in agricultural settings as well as the increasing use of home and yard fertilizers
2) solid and liquid wastes from livestock
3) septic tank leachates
4) combustion of fossil fuels



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Hyperlinked Key Terms Related to Water Resources
(Click on a term and you are linked to one of many appropriate web sites)

acid rain drainage basin karst topography total coliform bacteria
aquifer drainage divide NWIS water cycle
base level drinking water standards point & non-point pollution water quality
base flow

e coli bacteria

permeability water quantity
bed load ground water porosity watershed
cone of depression hard & soft water recharge water table
consumptive use vs. nonconsumptive use hydrograph runoff zone of aeration
discharge infiltration stream gauge zone of saturation
dissolved load hydrology surface water  



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Useful Hyperlinked Resources Addressing Water
American Water Resources Association  
PA DEP Drinking Water Information  
PA DEP Drought Information Center

USGS Water Information

PA DEP Water Management USGS Water Dictionary
PSU College of Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension US EPA Water Information



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Please address any questions, comments, or corrections to J. H. Way