Concerns were raised about the widespread use of roadside springs for drinking water in a 1990 report by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. This report suggested that roadside springs should be inventoried, routinely tested, and educational efforts should be created to alert residents about risks associated with these untreated water supplies.
Penn State Extension initiated a series of research projects and surveys in 2013 to better understand the issues associated with drinking water from roadside springs.
What is a Spring?
Springs occur wherever groundwater flows out from the earth's surface. Springs typically occur along hillsides, low-lying areas, or at the base of slopes. A spring is formed when the water table intersects the ground surface due to geological or topographical factors. This can occur at a distinct point or over a large seepage area. Spring water is groundwater, but it is groundwater that is close to the surface and more open to surface contamination than typical well water.
Household springs are used by up to 21% of residents in some counties and are most commonly used in rural homes in northcentral Pennsylvania (Potter, Forest, and Clarion Counties). Household springs must be developed and maintained properly for drinking water use.
Roadside springs are especially visible to travelers and may be accessed by a large number of local residents and travelers. Roads cuts often intersect shallow, natural springs allowing the groundwater to flow to the surface. Many roadside springs have stone or concrete structures and metal or PVC pipes built by someone years or decades ago. The springs may be on public or private property. The vast majority of roadside springs are not regularly tested or treated, and a few municipalities have posted warning signs about the lack of testing.
Understanding the actual source of water for a roadside spring can be important. One roadside spring we investigated looked very much like a roadside spring at the collection point, but when following the pipe back up the hill, the end of the pipe was sitting in a stream and was collecting surface water, and not groundwater.
Use of Roadside Springs
The use of roadside springs can be clearly seen by vehicles lined up along roads filling plastic jugs with water. However, the frequency and extent of roadside spring use was largely unknown until a statewide survey of participants at various Penn State Extension workshops was completed during 2014-2015. A total of 1,035 attendees at 55 educational programs across the state were asked about their use of roadside springs. Responses were collected across the state including:
- northcentral (312)
- northeast (173)
- northwest (41)
- southcentral (287)
- southeast (156)
- southwest (66)
Overall, 30% (311) of respondents indicated that they had collected water from a roadside spring at least once, while 69% (714) had never collected roadside spring water. Of the 30% who had collected roadside spring water, 18% (187) collected water infrequently (12% every few years, 6% annually), while 12% (124) collected spring water regularly (4% every few months, 5% monthly and 3% weekly).
When asked about their reasons for collecting roadside spring water, the most common responses were:
- They liked the idea of "natural" untreated water, 42% (435)
- Roadside spring water tastes better, 41% (424)
- Roadside springs were located near their camp or seasonal home, 20% (207)
- Roadside springs were convenient to visit, 12% (124)
- Roadside spring water replace polluted or dried up home water supplies, 10% (104)
- Other reasons, 15% (155) - most of these were related to water for household or garden plants, water for aquariums, and drinking water while hiking or biking.
Percentages do not add up to 100%, because respondents selected multiple answers.
Water Quality of Roadside Springs (Phase 1)
From April to August 2013, Penn State Extension conducted a pilot study of 35 roadside springs.
Roadside Spring Locations. The approximate location of roadside springs tested by Penn State Extension during 2013-2015. Plain red triangles indicate Phase 1 springs sampled once between June 2013 and August 2013. Circled triangles indicate Phase 2 springs that received more in-depth seasonal testing between June 2014 and March 2015.
These springs were generally located within public right-of-ways along state or local roadways. Single samples collected from each spring found that 97% (34) failed at least one drinking water standard.
The most common health-related pollutants were:
- total coliform bacteria 91% (32)
- E. coli bacteria 34% (12)
- lead 3% (1)
Other common pollutants that could cause various tastes or other aesthetic issues included:
- corrosiveness 89% (31)
- low pH / high acidity 40% (14)
- sediment 31% (11)
- iron 6% (2)
- manganese 6% (2)
Concentrations of aluminum, nitrate, arsenic, barium, copper and chloride were not found in any of the springs above drinking water standards.
Water Quality of Roadside Springs (Phase 2)
In 2014, a subset of roadside springs were chosen for repeated testing to determine (1) whether water quality changed significantly throughout the year and (2) if Giardia and Cryptosporidum, two protozoan parasites capable of causing series intestinal illness, were present in the springs. The springs were selected because they previously contained E. coli bacteria, which might vary seasonally or be associated with contamination by protozoans.
Ten springs were sampled for flow and water chemistry in June 2014, September 2014, December 2014, and March 2015. The flow of water was generally 1 to 10 gallons per minute from most springs although some springs exceeded 30 gal/min during the spring and some were below 1 gal/min in the fall.
The water quality from roadside springs changed very little throughout the year. All springs had total coliform bacteria in all seasons, from 11 per 100mL to too numerous to count. All springs had E. coli bacteria detected during Phase 1 testing in 2013 and 80% of the springs continued to test positive for E. coli at least once during the seasonal testing in Phase 2. E. coli bacteria counts were as high as 165 colonies per 100mL during the Phase 2 testing. Similar to the 2013 Phase 1 survey, aesthetic drinking water quality problems that occurred at least once during Phase 2 included pH, corrosivity, sediment, total dissolved solids, sulfate, and iron.
Eight roadside springs, each in a different county, were tested for the presence of Giardia and Cryptosporidium parasitic oocysts during October 2014 and March 2015. Sampling and testing for these protozoans in water is expensive and requires special equipment and the collection of large volumes of water which prevented broader testing of more springs.
Seven (88%) of the eight springs tested positive for Giardia and Cryptosporidium at least once. Five of the springs tested positive for both parasites in one season and negative in the other season. The concentrations of oocysts were generally low (below 10 oocysts per liter), but still represented a significant health risk to anyone consuming the water.
Penn State Water Resources Extension Educator, Jim Clark, collects a sample from a popular roadside spring in northcentral Pennsylvania.
Interestingly, the presence of E. coli bacteria was a poor indicator of the presence or absence of protozoan parasites. Both springs that had protozoans during both sample time periods did not have E. coli bacteria, yet the one spring that did not have protozoans during either sample period tested positive for E. coli.
Conversely, all roadside springs that tested positive for protozoans contained high counts of coliform bacteria (above 50 colonies per 100 mL). These results suggest that coliform bacteria rather than E. coli bacteria may be a better indicator of the overall safety of drinking water from roadside springs.
Summary and Recommendations
Roadside springs are a popular source of drinking water utilized regularly by more than 10% of the Pennsylvania population. Consumers of roadside springs most often point to perceived natural pureness and good taste as the main reasons for collecting spring water. However, research conducted by Penn State Extension from 2013 to 2015, on several dozen roadside springs found that nearly all fail health-based drinking water standards, many contain E. coli bacteria, and some even contain pathogenic Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Variation in E. coli and parasites shows that a single negative test result does not ensure those organisms are absent year round.
These results suggest that untreated roadside springs are largely unsuitable as a drinking water source. Anyone considering the use of a roadside spring for drinking water or other household purposes (plants, aquariums, livestock, etc.) should have the water tested through a state accredited laboratory to ensure its safety. At a minimum, water should be tested for coliform bacteria, which can be done for a small amount of money at many labs around the state.
Testing for Giardia and Cryptosporidium in water is not affordable or practical for private citizens but results from this study suggest that these parasites may occur at any roadside spring containing coliform bacteria. Cryptosporidium and Giardia may be killed by boiling water for several minutes or using special water treatment filters. It may be easier to transport safe water to seasonal residences rather than treating roadside spring water.
In addition to bacteria problems, most roadside springs had slightly soft and acidic water, a combination that produces corrosive water that is aggressive toward metals and other materials. Given the corrosive nature of this water, it is important that roadside spring water be stored in containers approved for water storage even for non-drinking use. Water should also not be stored in containers for more than six months.
References and related publications
The research project featured in this article was funded by Penn State Extension and the U.S. Geological Survey through funding provided to the Pennsylvania Water Resources Research Center at Penn State University.