Springs: What They Are and Why We’re Testing Them

Springs are a natural source of fresh, cold, flowing water that have undoubtedly attracted humans to them for millennia. Entire communities have been formed around springs, and many homes built before the 20th century were purposely built near springs. Springs have been used as water power for mills, natural refrigeration, and drinking water. MWA will be taking water samples at various publicly accessible springs in and around the Youghiogheny River watershed each quarter in 2021 to assess if they are up to drinking water standards. These springs are assumed to be potable (safe to drink) by the communities around them, but most, if not all, have no easily accessible record of their water quality to make that decision. Consider this blog an introduction to the project and springs in general. 

Spring houses built around springs were used for refrigeration and a clean water source

At a basic level, springs are simply water flowing from an underground source. The source could be shallow like the water table rising above the soil during a wet season, or deep like an aquifer (layer of porous rock). Depending on the topography, geology, and history of an area they can have wildly different chemical and physical properties: salt or freshwater, acidic or alkaline, hot or cold, a trickle or a torrent! In our corner of Pennsylvania around the Youghiogheny—not very geologically interesting—we tend to have cold, clear, freshwater springs that feed our mountain streams. Though once in a while you may stumble upon a saline (salty) spring that forms a “saltlick” which is a natural, accessible source of salty minerals for animals and humans alike. You may be able to guess why MWA’s home is named “Saltlick Township”. 

A popular roadside spring on Red Dog Road in Saltlick Township feeding Champion Creek

There are a few rules of thumb in using your critical thought to determine if water flowing out of the ground is safe to drink. Is the flowing water near an abandoned coal mine? If so it could be extremely acidic and contaminated with toxic metals. These flows will often be crystal clear, but the water will typically smell of sulfur or you’ll observe deposits of orange minerals where the water touches ground. Don’t drink it. Is the flowing water near an established neighborhood or industrial area? It could have sewage or chemicals in it. Don’t drink it. Is the flowing water in a low-lying valley near farms? Its source might close to the surface and is more likely to harbor bacteria like E. coli. Don’t drink it. If the flowing water is at the top of a forested mountain… there’s a safe bet you can drink it. 

These are all rules of thumb and there are many exceptions, but the safest thing to do before you drink from a source of spring water is to have it tested for contaminants. MWA will do the first quarter of spring sampling for 2021 within the next 2 weeks. We’ll be testing for E. coli, acidity, alkalinity, pH, conductivity, total suspended solids, sulfate, iron, aluminum, and lead. First quarter results for each spring tested will be posted and explained in a follow-up blog.