Groundwater Use in Urban Areas
Many human activities can contaminate groundwater in urban areas, which may lead to adverse health effects. It is recommended that groundwater in urban areas should not be used for drinking or cooking when a reticulated water supply is available.
Last updated: 01 November 2007
What is groundwater?
When rain falls on land, some water evaporates, some flows to streams and rivers and some seeps into the soil. Excess water in the soil seeps down until it reaches a level where the spaces within sediments or rocks are saturated with water. This is called the water table. Water in the saturated zone below the water table is called groundwater.
Most groundwater moves very slowly, compared to rivers and streams, because it has to flow through small openings. A rock or sediment layer that is capable of yielding useful supplies of groundwater is called an aquifer. Groundwater from aquifers can be brought to the surface by sinking bores or wells and installing a pump.
How does urbanisation increase the risk of pollution?
Many human activities can contaminate groundwater in urban areas including:
Some specific sites have been identified in urban areas where previous industrial use is known to have caused groundwater contamination. In Sydney, for example the Botany area has a long history of chemical industries and as a result parts of the groundwater in the North Botany Aquifer have been contaminated.
Some common contaminants identified in groundwater include:
Some of these can occur naturally in groundwater (e.g. arsenic and nitrate), but generally at much lower concentrations than those generated from human activity.
What happens to ground water if it's contaminated?
Groundwater contamination can move from the original source of contamination over a wide area or very deep underground. It is often difficult to know where the contamination has gone. Overlying soil or rock can hide the exact location of the contamination and present a substantial barrier to clean up efforts.
Contamination can persist for a long time as groundwater moves slowly and often lacks the natural biological, chemical, and physical processes that help cleanse surface water.
What are the health effects of contamination?
The risks to health will depend on the type and concentration of contaminants in the groundwater and also how often, for how long and in what ways people are exposed to the water (e.g. drinking, inhalation, or skin contact).
Often there is not enough information to assess the health risks from contaminated groundwater.
What is NSW Health's current advice?
Groundwater in urban areas should not be used for drinking or cooking where a reticulated water supply is available.
Residents in areas where contamination is likely (eg areas of previous industrial use) are also advised not to use groundwater for other domestic purposes, such as irrigation of fruit and vegetables, or use in spas and swimming pools. Should they wish to use it for these purposes the water should be regularly tested, and treated if necessary. However, users should be aware that routine tests might not identify all potential contaminants.
Users should check for warnings issued by the Department of Environment and Climate Change or the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) identifying contamination of groundwater in their area. A list of contaminated sites that DEC regulates is available on a public register on the Department of Environment and Climate Change website.
Information on groundwater quality is available on the Department of Natural Resources website .
An alternative to using groundwater is to collect rainwater. A properly maintained rainwater tank can provide good quality water. In urban areas with a reticulated water supply, NSW Health supports the use of rainwater for all non-drinking purposes such as garden watering and car washing.
|Further information - Public Health Units in NSW|
|For more information please contact your doctor, local public health unit or community health centre - look under NSW Government at the front of the White Pages|
|Metropolitan Areas||Location||Number||Rural Areas||Location||Number|
|Northern Sydney||Hornsby||02 9477 9400||Greater Southern||Goulburn||02 4824 1837|
|Central Coast||Gosford||02 4349 4845||Albury||02 6080 8900|
|South Eastern Sydney||Randwick||02 9382 8333||Greater Western||Broken Hill||08 8080 1499|
|Illawarra Shoalhaven||Wollongong||02 4221 6700||Dubbo||02 6841 5569|
|Sydney South West||Camperdown||02 9515 9420||Bathurst||02 6339 5601|
|Sydney West||Penrith||02 4734 2022||Hunter/New England||Newcastle||02 4924 6477|
|Parramatta||02 9840 3603||Tamworth||02 6764 8000|
|Justice Health Service||Matraville||02 9311 2707||North Coast||Port Macquarie||02 6588 2750|
|Lismore||02 6620 7585|