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While water covers about 70% of the earth’s surface and is seemingly abundant, about 97.5% of that water is saltwater from the ocean. This water is unfit for human consumption without extensive and often expensive treatment. This leaves us with about 2.5% of freshwater. About 70% of this freshwater is frozen in the icecaps and thus unavailable for human use. It is estimated that less than 1% is readily available for human use in lakes, rivers and shallow aquifers that are easily accessible. Because freshwater is not abundant, we need to understand and protect our drinking water sources.
There are two distinct types of water that are used for drinking—groundwater and surface water. Most surface water sources are supplies that are used to serve the public, which means they are protected by various environmental and public health regulations. We are going to focus on the issues faced by those who use groundwater as their source of drinking water because this includes owners of private wells. It is extremely important that these well owners are educated about the responsibilities that go along with having a private well to ensure their households have safe water for drinking and bathing. National Ground Water Awareness Week, sponsored by the National Ground Water Association (NGWA), provides homeowners with a yearly reminder to have their wells checked both for water quality and quantity.
The U.S. EPA suggests homeowners have their water tested at least once a year for bacteria. The agency also recommends that the water be tested any time there is a significant change in color, odor or taste, any time the area surrounding the wellhead is flooded, or after any repair. Based on my experience, most private well owners only look for testing when there is a noticeable change in the water, or when a news story or public notice of contamination in a specific area prompts concern. I think it is safe to say that most private well owners only have their water tested if something prompts them, but it is something that should be maintained on a regular basis.
Homeowners’ biggest challenge is trying to determine what to test for based on symptoms and potential for contamination. To reiterate, homeowners should have the well tested at least annually, possibly more based on a positive result and potential for contamination such as a flooded wellhead or shallow well. They may opt to have the water tested for minerals, which are mostly naturally occurring. These minerals can include iron, magnesium, calcium and manganese, and tend to cause problems with taste, odor, and staining of fixtures and laundry. Other metals found in water may include copper, lead and zinc, which are more likely to come from plumbing. Certain geographic areas have the potential for some health-related natural contaminants such as arsenic, barium, radium and radon. The local health department should be contacted for advice on the potential for these contaminants in the area.
Wells that are located in an area near a landfill, dry cleaner, gas station or other underground storage tanks should be tested regularly for volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Each state has a program that tracks all underground storage tanks. The state environmental department can be contacted to determine if other less obvious underground tanks are in the vicinity.
Many homeowners have become concerned with pesticides, specifically those who use pesticides on their own property or those whose homes are located in areas that are known to use pesticides such as farms and golf courses. When you consider testing for pesticides, you should investigate the types of pesticides being used. There are literally thousands of pesticides and several testing methods, so it can get expensive if you don’t narrow down the list. If pesticides or VOCs are found in the well, you should investigate the source of the problem and take action to prevent further contamination.
Additional testing should also be done to ensure water treatment equipment is adequately removing the contaminants, especially those with health-related consequences. This is important because certain water treatment processes will add the contaminant back into the water when the media becomes spent. For example, carbon used for removal of VOCs will eventually start adding the volatile organic back into the water when it becomes full. This same principle also applies to resins that are being used to remove arsenic and nitrate. You may opt to test on a more regular basis such as monthly or quarterly to ensure “breakthrough” is not occurring.
In addition to testing the water, wells should be inspected annually to ensure proper operation. A certified or licensed contractor should perform an annual check-up including a flow test, measurement of the water level, and a check of pump performance, pressure tank and pressure switch contact. Owners should also take preventative measures to maintain their wells by keeping hazardous chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, paint and motor oil at least 50 ft away, and periodically inspecting the well cover to ensure it is in good condition and securely attached. Owners should also maintain complete well records including the construction report, any testing that has been done and any records that pertain to well maintenance.
Ground Water Awareness Week will take place March 11 to 17, 2007. It provides groundwater professionals the perfect opportunity to participate in educating the public about groundwater issues. There are many ways to get involved: You can post and/or distribute fliers; you can issue press releases or letters to the editor to announce the importance of groundwater; or you can reserve a spot on a radio station. The NGWA has many resources to help you when dealing with the press, so visit the association’s website at www.ngwa.org and click on “Awareness Week.” Some other ideas include holding an educational class or event at your place of business and inviting your customers, local politicians and the media. You could also contact local schools and volunteer your time to discuss the importance of groundwater. The American Ground Water Trust is another great source for educational materials about groundwater, which you can access at www.agwt.org.
To ensure a safe water supply, private wells must be protected and properly maintained. Ground Water Awareness Week provides contractors and other related businesses with a forum to get involved and educate the public about groundwater issues including monitoring, prevention and maintenance. I urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to get involved and make a difference in our industry by educating the public about groundwater issues.