Microbial contamination of two urban sandstone aquifers in the UK

Powell, K.L., Taylor, R.G., Cronin, A.A., Barrett, M.H., Pedley, S., Sellwood, J., Trowsdale, S.A. and Lerner, D.N. (2003)

Water Research, 37(2), 339-352.

Abstract

Development of urban groundwater has historically been constrained by concerns about its quality. Rising urban water tables and over abstraction from rural aquifers in the UK have led to a renewed interest in urban groundwater, particularly the possibility of finding water of acceptable quality at depth. This study assessed the microbial quality of groundwater collected from depth-specific intervals over a 15-month period within the Permo-Triassic Sherwood Sandstone aquifers underlying the cities of Nottingham and Birmingham. Sewage-derived bacteria (thermotolerant coliforms, faecal streptococci and sulphite-reducing clostridia) and viruses (enteroviruses, Norwalk-like viruses, coliphage) were regularly detected to depths of 60m in the unconfined sandstone and to a depth of 91m in the confined
sandstone. Microbial concentrations varied temporally and spatially but increased frequency of contamination with depth coincided with geological heterogeneities such as fissures and mudstone bands. Significantly, detection of Norwalk-like viruses and Coxsackievirus B4 in groundwater corresponded with seasonal variations in virus discharge to the sewer system. The observation of low levels of sewage-derived microbial contaminants at depth in the Triassic Sandstone aquifer is explained by the movement of infinitesimal proportions of bulk (macroscopic) groundwater flow along preferential pathways (e.g., fissures, bedding planes). The existence of very high microbial populations at source (raw sewage) and their extremely low detection limits at the receptor (multilevel piezometer) enable these statistically extreme (microscopic) flows to be traced. Rapid penetration of microbial contaminants into sandstone aquifers, not previously reported, highlights the vulnerability of sandstone aquifers to microbial contamination.

Depth profiles of the distribution of faecal streptococci (FS), geology, sampling intervals and heterogeneities present at Site 1, Nottingham. Water t