Wellhead Protection Strategies for Confined-Aquifer Settings

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Kreitler, Charles W.
Senger, Rainer K.

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Improper management of contamination sources has resulted in numerous cases of groundwater contamination of public water supply wells. One approach toward preventing contamination of public water supplies is to protect the areas that recharge precipitation and surface water to the aquifer near the wells. This zone of protection is referred to as a wellhead protection area (WHPA). The potential for contamination is typically less in a confined aquifer than in an unconfined aquifer. Nevertheless, contamination of confined aquifers has occurred. Wellhead protection areas should be developed for all aquifer settings.

A confined aquifer is an aquifer overlain by low-permeability strata. The presence of the low permeability material reduces the risk of a surface contaminant reaching a producing well. The potential for contamination of a confined aquifer is controlled by two factors: (1) The presence of permeable pathways (for example, faults, fractures, permeable sands, or unplugged abandoned boreholes) that permit contaminant migration and (2) the existence of appropriate hydrologic conditions (for example, downward flow) that cause contaminants to migrate through the low-permeability strata.

Confined aquifers occur pervasively from coast to coast in the United States. The coastal plain aquifers along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico represent some of the largest confined aquifer systems in the United States. There are numerous other smaller aquifers which exhibit confined conditions.


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