Water Quality Protection

Two major federal laws that protect water quality in the United States are the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Clean Water Act, an amendment of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, protects navigable waters from dumpage and point-source pollution. The Safe Drinking Water Act ensures that water that is provided by public water suppliers, like cities and towns, is safe to drink.


Water can be contaminated by various human activities or by existing natural features, like mineral-rich geologic formations. Agricultural activities, industrial operations, landfills, animal operations, and sewage treatment processes, among many other things, can potentially contribute to contamination. As water runs over the land or infiltrates into the ground, it dissolves material left behind by these potential contaminant sources.

There are three major groups of contamination: inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and biological agents.

Small sediments that cloud the water, causing turbidity (making water cloudy or thick with suspended matter), is also an issue with some wells, but it is not considered contamination. The risks and type of remediation for a contaminant depends on the type of chemicals present.

Inorganic Chemicals

Inorganic contaminants include elements and compounds that are released into the environment most often through mining, industry, transportation, and urban activities. Chloride, nitrate (NO3), arsenic, lead, and uranium are some of the more common inorganic groundwater pollutants in Utah. Inorganic nutrients that are necessary for plant growth become pollutants when their concentration in groundwater and surface water becomes too high. The nutrient phosphate can be from geologic material, like phosphorous-rich rock, but is most often sourced from fertilizer and animal and human waste. Untreated sewage and agricultural runoff concentrates nitrogen and phosphorus which are essential for the growth of microorganisms. Nutrients like nitrate and phosphate in surface water can promote growth of microbes, like blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which in turn use oxygen and create toxins (microcystins and anatoxins) in lakes.

Metals are inorganic elements or compounds that may contaminate groundwater. Lead, mercury, and arsenic are some of the more problematic inorganic groundwater contaminants. In Sanpete County, high concentrations of arsenic in groundwater may be associated with poultry farms. Other isolated elevated arsenic levels in Utah groundwater may be associated with volcanic rocks or volcanic-derived sediments in valley-fill deposits.

Mining can also cause significant inorganic contamination. Groundwater in parts of southwest Salt Lake County has been contaminated by seepage from a reservoir and evaporation ponds associated with the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine. The most severely contaminated groundwater in this area is acidic and laden with metals and very high TDS concentrations. Clean-up of the groundwater by the mining company is ongoing.

Salt, typically sodium chloride, is a common inorganic contaminant. It can be introduced into groundwater from natural sources, such as evaporite deposits like the Arapien Shale in central Utah, or from human activity-related sources like the salts applied to roads in the winter to keep ice from forming. Salt contamination can also occur from saltwater intrusion, where cones of depression around fresh groundwater pumping near saline lakes or the ocean induce the encroachment of saltwater into the freshwater body.


Point source pollution can be attributed to a single, definable source, while nonpoint source pollution is from multiple dispersed sources.

Point sources
include waste disposal sites, storage tanks, sewage treatment plants, and chemical spills.

Nonpoint sources
are dispersed and indiscreet, where the whole of the contribution of pollutants is harmful, but the individual components do not have harmful concentrations of pollutants.

A good example of nonpoint pollution are residential areas, where lawn fertilizer on one person’s yard may not contribute much pollution to the system, but the combined effect of many residents using fertilizer can lead to significant nonpoint pollution. Other significant nonpoint sources of pollution to Utah’s aquifers include:

  • herbicides and pesticides contributed by agriculture
  • nitrate and phosphate contributed by agricultural fertilizer
  • nitrate contributed by animal operations, and
  • nitrate contributed by septic systems.
Highlighted Scientific Publications

Report of Investigation 282

Time Series Analyses of a Great Basin Groundwater-Fed Wetland Complex, Juab County, Utah: Climate Effects on Groundwater-Dependent Wetlands

Special Study 165

Characterization of the Groundwater System in Ogden Valley, Weber County, Utah, with Emphasis on Groundwater–Surface-Water Interaction and the Groundwater Budget

Public Interest Articles

Ricks Spring, Cache County Springs 2024
Climatically Controlled Water Supply in the Bryce Canyon Region? Groundwater 2024
The Utah Flux Network Groundwater 2022
Groundwater Monitoring Well Installation at Sevenmile Canyon Near Arches National Park Groundwater Monitoring 2021
The Role of Water Quality and Quantity on Future Development Near Bryce Canyon National Park Groundwater 2021
An In-depth Look at Ogden Valley's Groundwater Groundwater 2020
Crystal Geyser, Grand County Water 2018
Does Utah really use more water than any other state? Water 2018
Monroe’s “Sweet” Groundwater Points to Contamination Source Water 2018
Monitoring Groundwater Response to Large-Scale Juniper Treatments Water 2018
UGS’s Role in Contributing Water-Quality Data to the National Ground-Water Monitoring Network Groundwater 2017
Deep Nitrate in an Alluvial Valley: Potential Mechanisms for Transport Groundwater 2015
Roosevelt Hot Springs Geothermal Area, Beaver County Water 2014
UGS Groundwater & Spring Flow Monitoring in Snake Valley Groundwater 2014
Establishing Baseline Water Quality in the Southeastern Uinta Basin Water 2013
Using Aquifers for Water Storage in Cache Valley Water 2013
Gandy Warm Springs, Millard County Water 2013
What do environmental tracers tell us about groundwater in Snake Valley? Groundwater 2011
Modeling Ground-Water Flow in Cedar Valley Groundwater 2010
Utah Geological Survey’s West Desert Ground-Water Monitoring Network: Progress Report Groundwater 2010
Unusually High Nitrate Concentrations in Southern Sanpete County’s Ground Water Groundwater 2009
Cascade Springs, Wasatch County Water 2008
Geothermal Energy Development in Utah Geothermal Energy 2008
Ground-Water Monitoring in Utah’s West Desert Groundwater 2007
Proposed Ground-water Withdrawal in Snake Valley Groundwater 2006
Groundwater Water 2006
Pilot Project Shows Promise for Aquifer Storage and Recovery Groundwater 2005
The Midway Hot Pots – Natural Hot Springs, Wasatch County Water 2004
New Aquifer Storage and Recovery Project, Ogden Area Groundwater 2003
Cache Valley sensitivity and vulnerability to pesticides Groundwater 2002
Hydrologic Cycle Specific to Utah Water 1999
Do I have to travel all the way to Yellowstone, or can I see beautiful hot springs here in Utah? Water 1998
Thermal Springs in Utah Water 1995

Topic Articles: 33