Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Effect of on-site wastewater disposal on quality of ground water and base flow: A pilot study in Chester County, Southeastern Pennsylvania, 2005

January 5, 2008

On-site wastewater disposal has the potential to introduce contaminants into ground water and subsequently, by ground-water discharge, to streams. A pilot study was conducted during 2005 by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Chester County Health Department and the Chester County Water Resources Authority to determine if wastewater components, including inorganic constituents and selected organic wastewater compounds, such as detergents, considered to be emerging contaminants, were present in ground water and stream base flow in areas with on-site wastewater disposal. The study area was a small watershed (about 7.1 square miles) of mixed land use drained by Broad Run in central Chester County, Pa. The area is underlain by fractured metamorphic rocks that form aquifers recharged by precipitation. Surface- and ground-water sampling was done in areas with and without on-site wastewater disposal for comparison, including a relatively densely populated village with cesspools and septic systems, a residential area with septic systems, a residential area served by sewers, and agricultural land. Samples were collected in May-June and September 2005 from eight headwater stream sites under base-flow conditions and in June 2005 from eight wells and two springs. Samples were analyzed for major ions, nutrients, boron, bacteria, and a suite of organic wastewater compounds. Several emerging contaminant wastewater compounds, including detergent components, insect repellents, and flame retardants, were detected in base-flow and ground-water samples. Stream base-flow samples generally contained more compounds and higher concentrations of those compounds than did ground-water samples, and of the ground-water samples, samples from springs contained more compounds and higher concentrations than samples from wells. Concentrations of nitrate, chloride, and boron (inorganic constituents associated with wastewater) generally were all elevated in base-flow and ground-water samples in areas with relatively high densities of on-site wastewater disposal (septic systems or cesspools) compared to other areas sampled. Results of this pilot study should be considered preliminary because of limited data.