Are Roadside Springs Safe?
Many people drink water from roadside springs in Pennsylvania. But as you learn more about springs and the research we’ve done at Penn State, you may reconsider that choice. A spring is a place where water stored under the ground emerges on the land surface. Spring water is groundwater. But it is groundwater that is close to the surface and more open to contamination than typical well water, because it has not moved through deep layers of rock. Roadside springs are places where groundwater comes to the surface, usually due to a cut in the hillside made for the road. In many cases, pipes and pull-offs have been added to help people collect water from these springs. In this video, you will learn about the dangers of using roadside springs in Pennsylvania for drinking water. The information presented here is based on research done over two years, from 2013 through 2015, by Penn State Extension with funding from the Pennsylvania Water Resources Research Center.
We wanted to examine the use of roadside springs and to measure water quality to determine whether water from roadside springs was generally suitable for drinking. Roadside springs take on many forms. Some are very simple with just a pipe protruding from the ground. In other cases, structures are added to drain the spring water and make collection of water easier. Occasionally, additional work around the spring involves beautiful stonework developed decades ago. Some roadside springs provide inviting faucets and hydrants. Penn State Extension surveyed a total of 1034 Pennsylvania residents about their use of roadside springs at 55 educational events and workshops across the state. 30 percent of the residents in our survey indicated that they had consumed water from a roadside spring at least once. More importantly, a total of 12 percent said that they consume water from roadside springs every few months to weekly. Of the 30 percent of residents who had consumed water from a roadside spring, the most common reasons were the good taste of the water and the idea of drinking a “natural” source of water with no chlorine or other additives.
Many also used roadside springs because they were close to camps or seasonal homes or they were convenient to visit. Some used roadside springs because their home water was unfit for use or had gone dry. There were many examples of “other” uses but water for plants, gardens, and aquariums were the most common. In addition to surveying the use of roadside springs, we also sought to measure water quality. Thirty-seven roadside springs were selected for testing in 2013 based on discussions with district offices of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation along with local government offices.
The approximate location of each spring is shown as red triangles on this map. Most of these springs flow from one to ten gallons of water per minute. From April thirtieth to August twelfth of 2013, 7 extension personnel from across Pennsylvania sampled 37 roadside springs located in road right-of-ways across 21 counties. Each spring was sampled once. The samples were collected and taken to the Agricultural Analytical Services Lab at Penn State for analysis. The samples were analyzed for 20 different parameters.
These tables show the different water quality parameters that were tested on each of the roadside springs and the state drinking water standards for each parameter. Note that parameters on the left can cause health effects while parameters on the right have secondary or aesthetic water quality effects. The initial testing of 37 springs found that 91 percent failed at least one drinking water standard. Bacterial contamination from coliform bacteria was the most common problem. Springs were also generally characterized by corrosive water caused by water with a low pH. Sediment and E. coli bacteria were found above acceptable levels in more than 30 percent of the springs. Not surprisingly, the roadside springs generally produced aesthetically pleasing water quality with only six percent failing an aesthetic water quality standard. Metals like iron and manganese and salts like chloride and sulfate were generally very low which would produce good tasting water. Nitrate, aluminum, arsenic, barium, copper and chloride were not found above drinking water standards in any of the roadside springs.
A subset of 10 roadside springs were selected for more detailed water quality testing during 2014 and 2015 as denoted by the circled locations on this map. The more detailed sampling of these 10 springs included seasonal samples for the same water quality parameters initially tested in the 37 springs. Large amounts of water were also collected from each roadside spring and sent to a lab in Vermont for testing of Giardia and Cryptosporidium. These microscopic parasites can cause severe gastrointestinal illness in humans. This more detailed testing showed that bacteria problems in roadside springs are persistent throughout the year. But they tend to be the worst when it is wetter and warmer in the spring and summer. Testing also found that 88 percent of the springs contained giardia or cryptosporidium during one or both of the sample times but the concentrations per liter were generally low.
Testing for giardia and cryptosporidium is extremely expensive. Our research found that total coliform bacteria was the best indicator of the presence of harmful parasites in roadside springs and can be tested by many labs in Pennsylvania for about $30. Despite their popularity, our research shows that most roadside springs fail health-based drinking water standards. Potential users of roadside springs are urged to use caution and get the water tested, at a minimum for coliform bacteria, before consuming the water.