Come summer, country dwellers often get that sinking feeling that maybe, just maybe, this might be the year the well runs dry. Unfortunately, they have reason to ponder not only the quantity, but also the quality of their water.
NEXT TIME YOU GET CAUGHT IN THE RAIN, let your mind wander and ponder the drops falling all around you. Consider that life depends on water. Consider that a thunderstorm that dumps half an inch of rain over an acre could fill 339 bathtubs. Consider that there is a finite amount of water on the planet: it can be diluted by ocean salt, it can evaporate into clouds, it can freeze into glaciers, it can sink into the ground, but the amount of water on Earth has pretty much been the same ever since the “Big Bang”. Indeed, when you awoke this morning, you showered in the same water that the ancient Egyptians used to irrigate their fields and the same water over which Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Some of the water lying deep within the aquifers below us has been there for upwards of 15,000 years.
In that light, consider also that most of the fresh water that the world drinks comes not from lakes and rivers but from subterranean sources. Even here in Watershed country, where all the major towns take their water from adjacent waterways, many inhabitants live rurally and have no choice but to rely on wells. In Prince Edward County alone, this applies to some 59% of local households. Brighton depends entirely on groundwater for its municipal water supply. Worldwide, Environment Canada reports that all this groundwater could cover the Earth’s surface to a depth of 120 metres. Even so, this is still only a fraction – less than one-third – of the total amount of fresh water on the planet, the lion’s share of which is frozen in glaciers and ice caps. These are numbers that boggle the mind, so vast that it would be easy to assume that groundwater is a limitless resource that can sustain us forever. But just as the world learned with oil, there may be enough of it around, but it isn’t always easy to access. In fact, most of it is stored too deep in the Earth to be practical for household use. Our wells only tap the sources closest to the surface. And this top layer of groundwater is surprisingly vulnerable.
You need only recall last summer’s drought to realize that we shouldn’t be complacent about our water supply (see “When the Well Runs Dry,” Watershed, Spring 2017). Remember the headlines? “Low water level situation is serious,” warned the Belleville Intelligencer in July. “Advisories, bans in effect during dry spell,” said Northumberland Today in August. After three months with less than half the usual rainfall, groundwater levels dropped precipitously throughout our region, dozens of wells went dry.
Suddenly, no one was taking water for granted, and even after our aquifers and groundwater replenished themselves this spring, the drought prompted some soul-searching about the effects of climate change. After all, 2016 was the hottest summer ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere and one of our driest: as the weather gets more extreme in the years ahead, is this the new normal?
While a prolonged lack of rainfall can threaten the supply of water, there is just as much concern – if not more – about its quality. Although Nature does a pretty good job of filtering out impurities as rainwater trickles through the soil, human interference has introduced a whole new roster of contaminants that aren’t so easily dispensed with. They can quickly render a well polluted. Remember the Walkerton tragedy 17 years ago, when cattle manure accidentally spilled into the town’s well, leaving seven people dead and 2,500 severely ill? Closer to home, we have yet to face such a catastrophe, but every now and then, word surfaces of a calamity involving groundwater contamination. Some of the news is unsettling. Consider the following wake-up calls:
FLOODING IN NORTHUMBERLAND
In the winter of 2010, the local health unit issued a boil-water advisory warning to Northumberland residents whose wells are situated on low-lying land. In the face of an unseasonably mild January, melting snow was overwhelming local waterways and the worry was that any number of river- and lakeside wells could be submerged by floodwater. And as the Walkerton episode reminds us, a flooded well is ripe for contamination.
The boil notice was considered a precautionary measure, and lasted less than a week, but still, folks were wondering: in the new climate-change reality, where extremes in weather will be the norm, is my well doomed?
A prolonged lack of rain can threaten our water supply but there should be just as much concern – if not more – about our water quality
BRINE ON TAP IN WELCOME
It’s hard to believe, but it was in 1989 that residents of Welcome, a hamlet along Highway 2 in Northumberland, raised concern that their wells had been irreversibly contaminated by road salt. Ever since the cry was raised, residents have been using bottled water for household use, trucked in and paid for by the province. After almost 30 years of wrangling, the end appears to be in sight. In April 2016, Port Hope – the municipality in which Welcome lies – announced it would extend a water main along Highway 2 to connect affected properties to town water. No one would have to rely on a well ever again.
Port Hope’s newest water tower stands within sight of Welcome, so you can understand why the locals might be scratching their heads as to why it took a generation to agree on such an obvious solution. Nevertheless, they are breathing a sigh of relief, but there’s still a larger question to ponder: Welcome was lucky to be so close to town water, but what about property owners who live further from a water main? What recourse do they have if road salt is the culprit behind their contaminated wells? After all, Welcome isn’t the only place to have faced this kind of water crisis. In the early ’90s, Grafton bit the bullet and instituted its own very expensive municipal water system after local wells were similarly ruined by road salt.
A LEAKY LANDFILL NEAR NAPANEE
Despite promises – and a law – that leached materials would be contained within the confines of the site, it was confirmed by the provincial Ministry of Environment in 2015 that a privately owned landfill had been leaking toxins into the surrounding soil and contaminating neighbouring wells. The dump, found just off the 401 to the west of Napanee, had been the subject of heated debate ever since its owner applied for a license to expand the operation three-fold in 2006. At the end of the battle of words, the Ministry of Environment not only denied the request, but shut the landfill down completely, arguing it should never have been built there in the first place, thanks to the underlying stratified bedrock, which leaks water – and all kinds of toxins it might contain – like a sieve.
But whether it’s open for business or not, the landfill continues to leak. In that 2015 decision, an environmental review tribunal demanded the owner adopt significant improvements in managing existing waste, but as more than one resident has said, the damage is already done. Once an aquifer is polluted, it’s not easy to clean it up. So for now, the locals test their wells religiously and keep worrying about the future of their drinking water.
A LEAKY BARGE IN PICTON
A partially sunken barge was the culprit behind an ominous oily sheen that appeared on Picton Bay back in late March of this year. As a small amount of diesel or other fuel drifted uncomfortably close to the town’s water intake, the municipality promptly shut down its water facility for several days and advised residents to boil water and use it judiciously. By all accounts, the crisis was handled by the book and was over in a reasonable amount of time, but like other close calls, it served as a reminder that surface water is vulnerable to unforeseen accidents and hazards.
THE **** HITS THE FAN IN WARKWORTH
It sounds like a win-win. With more treated sewage than they know what to do with, municipalities were overjoyed to find an ideal solution: offer it to area farmers, who are only too eager to use it to fertilize their land. After all, whether it comes from a cow or from your bathroom, manure is manure. Best of all, “biosolids,” as they are known in the industry, are rich in nutrients and free for the asking. Sewage sludge saves farmers $5 million a year in Ontario.
Not so fast, critics say. There are many who raise their eyebrows at the idea of sewage sludge being spread indiscriminately on agricultural fields, unconvinced that certain persistent contaminants – pathogens, heavy metals and pharmaceuticals – are filtered out before application to the soil. The issue became a national debate in the early 2000s and Watershed country certainly wasn’t exempt. In fact, sludge was the basis of a 2009 lawsuit launched against a Warkworth-area farmer and the Town of Cobourg by a neighbouring couple, who claimed biosolid fertilizer spread on the farmer’s acreage was the culprit behind their chronic health problems. The complainants were so affected with persistent ailments and fatigue that they put their property up for sale, only to find no one interested.
The suit was dismissed, although certain aspects of it are still mired in courtroom wrangling. In the meantime, the issue has faded from the national media spotlight and Cobourg – and scores of other municipalities – still hands out free fertilizer. On its website, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment states emphatically that biosolids are safe and their use is subject to government oversight. Indeed, the stuff has to be tested three times before it can be shipped to a farm. “It should be noted,” says the Ministry website, “that there are no documented cases of adverse effects where biosolids have been applied to agricultural land in accordance with regulations or to anyone living nearby.” Still, certain large foodprocessing companies – including Heinz and Del Monte – won’t buy anything from a farmer who grows with sludge.
For all the talk of contamination from such exotic sources as sewage sludge and leaking landfills, the single most reported threat to groundwater is the workaday household septic tank. One estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. suggests that fully 10% of all private septic systems fail – and leak – each year. Think about it: there’s a reason that the provincial building code decrees that a well can be no closer to a septic field than 15 metres.
And that’s just the point, says the Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association. When in good working condition, a conventional septic system is, in fact, a shining example of green technology: household waste settles into an in-ground, concrete tank; effluent is fed by gravity into a series of perforated pipes into a leaching bed, where – with the help of oxygen and bacteria – it trickles clean through a layer of gravel into the soil below. No harm done and the system lasts for decades.
The problem arises with older systems that have not been maintained or are inadequate for the needs of a modern family. Over time, tree roots might clog the flow in the leaching field; cracks in the tank can let raw waste ooze into the surrounding soil; the waste- and grey-water from a family of five can put undue strain on a system that was designed decades ago only for occasional use at a cottage. But the worst-case scenario is the homeowner who is blissfully unaware of how the system works: ever hear about the guy who destroyed his leaching bed with a rototiller, thinking it was a great place for his vegetable garden?
WATER ON THE FARM
Here in southern Ontario, where rainfall is usually quite adequate and regular, irrigation is rarely a factor in water quantity. However, agriculture is still under scrutiny over what it can do to water quality. That’s because the industry uses herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that can linger in ground- and surface water long after they have served their purpose in nurturing crops. Phosphorus and nitrogen, both key ingredients in fertilizer, easily wash into lakes and rivers where plant life gorges on them, creating worrisome algal blooms in any number of Canadian lakes when conditions are right. And while surface water is particularly susceptible, some pesticides can absorb into the soil and reach the water table. This kind of infiltration can take years to manifest itself and, by then, the aquifer is already spoiled. Environment and Climate Change Canada advises, “Because of this, and because it is so expensive to clean up a contaminated aquifer, if it can be done at all, it is preferable by far to prevent contamination from happening in the first place.”
Despite the drought of 2016, water still abounds locally, and rarely do we have to worry about drinking it. But as we have seen in the examples discussed in this article, we would be naïve to think our groundwater is free from any threat. Any number of issues is already affecting both its quality and quantity, and who knows to what extent climate change will be even more of a factor in the future? If last year’s notorious dry spell taught us nothing else, we should learn the lesson that we shouldn’t take drinking water for granted any more. Maybe it’s time we got a little more philosophical and treated drinking water like the precious resource that it is.
About half the rain that falls from the sky gets sucked back up into the clouds by evaporation. Another 30% drains toward or falls directly into oceans, lakes and rivers, where it is better known in scientific circles as surface water. The rest – about 20% – sinks into the earth, where it meets a saturated subterranean zone called the water table. This zone holds groundwater; if it bears enough to be extracted for human use, it is called an aquifer. Aquifers vary in size, from the equivalent of a small pond to a substantial lake; likewise, they vary based on the amount of rainfall and the rate at which the surrounding soil and rock allows groundwater to replenish itself. A spring is groundwater that bubbles to the surface.
HOW WELL IS YOUR WELL?