| Mar 06, 2008

Feature Article - March 6, 2008

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Feature Article - March 6, 2008 Private wells & the public goodBy Jeff GreenMost people who live in rural Ontario drink well water, and the condition of their wells and the safety of the water pumped out of them is generally considered to be a matter for the homeowner to worry about.

However, according to Mary Jane Conboy, the Executive Director of the Well Wise Resource Centre in Orono, Ontario, contaminated and abandoned wells pose health risks for homeowners and for their neighbours.

“People forget about wells once they are drilled, but a lot of things happen after a well is drilled which can affect the water,” Conboy told a group of about 30 people at the Sydenham Town Hall last Wednesday night (February 27) in a session presented by the South Frontenac Natural Environment Committee.

Some problems result from neglect, but others come from attempts to camouflage wellheads through landscaping or to incorporate them into gardens. The problem with these activities, Conboy said, is that they can trap water around the well, which can allow water to penetrate around the well casing and head down to the water source. They can also provide incentives for insects and rodents to penetrate the well cap itself.

“Only grass should be allowed in the vicinity of the well, and the ground should be tapered away from the well so surface water runs away,” Conboy said.

Newer well caps, which ensure a proper seal, have come on the market in the past few years, and can be purchased to replace older, less secure caps.

Conboy recommends an annual inspection of all wells, which includes looking around the base of the well for signs of water seepage, and removing the well cap to see if there are signs of insect or rodent activity.

As well, three times yearly bacterial testing, which is a free service provided by the health unit, and an annual comprehensive test are recommended.

Among the comprehensive testing packages promoted by the Well Wise Centre, is a rural well water test package that tests for ph, turbidity, nitrate N, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, chloride, sulphate, electrical conductivity, bicarbonate, sodium, total dissolved solids, hardness, zinc, manganese, copper, iron, boron, silicon, and lead.

The package costs $50, in addition to shipping and administration, and will be available through Hearthmakers, a Kingston-based not-for-profit corporation that will be coordinating well awareness programming in Frontenac County starting this spring.

Maintenance of wells has a direct effect on the safety of individual water supplies, but it also has an effect on the safety of well water at other locations, because underground aquifers are connected. The number of private wells in Ontario, which each have the potential to affect the overall water supply, is staggering.

There are 750,000 registered wells in the province, and it is estimated there are 1.5 million unregistered wells.

Twenty-eight percent of Ontarians drink well water, and in rural Ontario that number is 98%.

Since 1924, well drillers have been licensed in Ontario, but many landowners have dug their own wells over the years. Mary Jane Conboy estimates that about 1/3 of the wells in Ontario are dug wells; about 1/3 are drilled but their caps are below ground or inside dwellings as was the practice years ago; and 1/3 are finished above ground out of doors as is recommended nowadays.

“Wells that are finished below ground are susceptible to contamination,” Conboy said, “and require extra attention.”

Many older wells, including dug wells, are safe, and still others are capable of rehabilitation, but this work should be done by licensed well technicians, and can be costly.

The overall safety of well water is in doubt, however. According to information that has been gathered by Mary Jane Conboy, only 27% of the well owners test their water 3 times a year, 33% test once a year and 39% test “seldom.” About 34% of wells that are tested show high levels of bacteria and 14% show high levels of nitrates.

Another major issue for the water supply are abandoned dug wells, which pose a threat to public health in two ways. They pose a direct threat, when people, usually children, fall in, but they are also a threat to the water supply because they allow bacteria into the water table when they are left open to the elements. Decommissioning dug wells must be done properly; simply filling them in with rocks and soil can increase contamination of the water table.

It is a landowner’s obligation, through provincial regulation, to seal unused wells, and this process must be supervised by a technician who is licensed by the Ministry of the Environment.

Another major factor in water safety is geology. In Frontenac County, most of the territory is on the Frontenac Spur of the Canadian Shield and is classified as fractured granite. While contaminants can make their way from the surface to the water table down below, the risk is not as great as it is in the southern and western parts of the county, in parts of Loughborough and Portland districts of South Frontenac. There, the more porous limestone rock is easier for water to penetrate. Failed septic systems, abandoned gas stations, and agricultural run off can all have an impact.

A third geological formation, a sandstone formation, is highly susceptible to groundwater contamination, but there are only a few isolated locations in South Frontenac that are identified as sandstone by geologists.

Both the Well Aware program (wellaware.ca), which has a provincial mandate, and the Wellwise Resource Centre (wellwise.ca) are information resources for people looking to protect their water supply.

As Hearthmakers gets its Well Aware program up and running, public information and a home visiting component will be announced.

While there are provincial regulations that require wells to be maintained by property owners, a public information program rather than heavy-handed enforcement is the direction the province has chosen in promoting safe well water.

The Source Water Protection Committees that have been set up in the region over the past year will be focusing on municipal water systems rather than private wells.

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