Water quality

A water bottle sits on a desk.

If you’ve ever been to the HUB-Robeson Center, the gym or the hallway outside your dorm, you’ve probably seen a water fountain or two. But where does all of Penn State’s drinking water come from, and should students be concerned about its quality?

Demian Saffer, a Penn State professor in the geosciences department, specializes in geohydrology — the branch of science that deals with underground water. One of his areas of expertise is groundwater flow.

“Penn State is kind of fortunate that we have a pretty high quality groundwater resource. We don’t rely on surface water, like creeks, streams or lakes for the water supply. It comes from wells and the aquifer, or the formation where the water is stored and flows through,” Saffer said. “[Penn State’s aquifer] is fractured limestone, which is a rock that underlies Happy Valley, Penns Valley and basically all of Central Pennsylvania.”

Saffer said the rock has two ideal characteristics — its fractures and the speed with which it refills.

“Those fractures in the rock basically allow water to move pretty quickly. So when you drill the well, you can actually get hundreds of gallons per minute out of that well. There’s not as much resistance to flow,” Saffer said. “It also recharges very easily, and it’s replenished by precipitation, snow melt or rainfall, which finds its way back into the aquifer about four or five times more rapidly than what you might expect for a typical aquifer. That allows us to extract it in a pretty sustainable way.”

Saffer said if Penn State wasn’t on top of the limestone, it would likely buy river water from the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh areas. Since surface water is more exposed to the elements and pollutants, multimillion dollar treatment plants would have to prepare it for human use.

Every year, Penn State’s Office of the Physical Plant issues a Drinking Water Quality Report, which evaluates whether over the course of the previous year, the university’s water systems met federal and state requirements.

This past year’s report was issued on June 6, and found that all the requirements were met.

Rob Cooper, the senior director of energy and engineering at the Office of the Physical Plant, said Penn State has nine groundwater wells in two well fields that are the sources for the University Drinking Water System at University Park.

“The water is pumped from the groundwater wells to the University Water Treatment Plant where it is treated and pumped into the water distribution system and stored in the water towers to provide domestic water and fire protection until used by the campus community,” Cooper said via email. “…One of the well field’s water is treated via nanofiltration for softening, and the final step in the process is the addition of sodium hypochlorite for disinfection to create a finished water of the highest quality for our customers.”

Cooper added there are over 100 water-bottle filling stations strategically placed throughout campus to provide students with easy access to water while also promoting sustainability by reducing the use of disposable plastic containers.

Water quality

A water bottle is filled up from a water fountain.

“Generally speaking, the Penn State community can reduce the impact to the environment and consumption in a variety of ways,” Cooper said. “Some easy and impactful methods include using refillable water bottles as opposed to disposable plastic water bottles and taking shorter showers.”

Senior program coordinator for Penn State EcoReps Vanessa Lares said water quality might be slightly different from the tap to water bottle filters depending on additional filters, but this shouldn’t stop students from using them. EcoReps advocates for sustainability within the Penn State community.

Lares (senior-biobehavioral health) said she is against buying bottled water on campus, as it is less regulated, creates “unnecessary waste” and is more expensive.

“Tap water has stricter regulations in terms of carcinogens than bottled water,” Lares (senior-biobehavioral health) said. “Get a reusable water bottle. You’ll save money and drink better regulated water. If you’re still concerned, buy a bottle with a filter.”

Student Jerry Noel sometimes buys plastic water bottles, but typically drinks from the water fountains.

Noel (freshman-computer science) tries to reduce his impact on the environment through water consumption by using a reusable water bottle.

“If I don’t have my [reusable] water bottle, I’ll probably just buy a plastic one from the store,” Noel said. “It saves more money, using my reusable one.”

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