Something in the Water- Part 1, by J.R.

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After years of dreaming, planning, saving, and sweating, you are finally ready to leave occupied territory and make your move to the American Redoubt. You have poured over maps, studied census data, consulted with real estate professionals, and talked to county planning and assessors offices. You now are down to your short list, but what about the water supply? Water can make or break your new homestead. “It’s no problem,” you say. You checked the well logs, and the general area has good producing wells of reasonable depth, or your selected property already has a well.

What is a Well Log

Well logs are a record made by the well driller during well construction. These are usually filed with the state’s regulating agency. These logs record vital information, including well depth, static level (the top of the water in the well), and often the estimated gallons per minute the well will produce. Well depths and the material being drilled through are vital information, if you need to diagnose water quality issues. Below is a portion of a well log.

Note: The information presented in this article generally applies to drilled wells. Springs, seeps and other surface water sources are often regulated different than wells. While domestic wells are typically exempted from obtaining a formal water right, you likely need to acquire a water right to develop springs and other surface water sources (lakes, rivers, and streams) for domestic use. Please, check with your local permitting entities before making withdrawals from surface water. Even a pipe from a stream to your animal watering trough may require a permit or water right.

Shallow and/or dug wells may have different requirements too. There is more to wells than how much water they produce. The water must be fit for consumption or treatable in a cost effective manner. Western states have different requirements for certifying usability of domestic water, and these requirements may vary between counties. Generally though, the regulations are minimal and regulating agencies are quick to remind you that you are ultimately responsible to determine the suitability of your well water.

Recent developments in the heart of the Redoubt have focused attention on potential unseen hazards with private and potentially even small public water supplies. (See article “Welling Concerns”, Flathead Beacon, 1/13/2016)

Anything found in your water besides, well, water (H2O) is deemed a contaminant. Contaminants don’t necessarily mean your water poses a health risk; some, like copper and zinc, are essential to good health in small amounts but may be toxic at high concentrations. Other elements, like calcium and potassium, are beneficial to health, and some companies add them to bottled water to improve taste. This article will discuss three categories of contaminates that affect well water.

Physical Contaminants

While many factors may impact the physical properties (color, odor, taste, and/or turbidity) of water, physical contaminants generally refer to sediment and organic matter suspended in the water. Shallow groundwater, surface water intrusion into your well, a damaged or missing well casing, or changes in your groundwater level can all lead to physical contaminates in water. This type of contamination can usually be resolved through physical methods, such as filtration or settling.

Biological Contaminants

These are organisms such as bacteria, viruses, protozoan, and parasites. These contaminants are typically addressed by the regulating agencies by way of a requirement to test total coliform bacteria in newly commissioned wells and upon transfer of property title. It is generally recommended that private well owners perform this test occasionally to protect against water-borne disease. A successful test confirms the absence of coliform bacteria in the water. While not all coliform bacteria originate from warm blooded animals, the coliform group generally indicates water that is unsanitary and potentially unsafe.

Fecal coliform, escherichia coliform, fecal streptococci, and enterococci are the most common types of coliform bacteria. Klebsiella bacteria are naturally occurring in soil, water, and vegetation. They can generate a false positive for fecal coliform under some test conditions.

Nuisance organisms, generally iron and sulfur bacteria, cause slimes, odor, and staining. Algae can cause offensive musty odors and nuisance growths. Fungi are often associated with taste and odor issues.

Pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella, legionella, mycobacteria, and campylobacter are responsible for waterborne diseases. While many are not discernable with coliform tests, they rarely exist in environments free from coliform bacteria.

Enteric viruses are passed from digestive systems of infected organisms. Like pathogenic bacteria, they occur at concentrations much lower than coliforms, but infections can be produced with very few viruses. Pathogenic protozoa, such as Giardia (beaver fever) and Cryptosporidium, are common in unfiltered surface water. The cysts from this group of contaminates may be somewhat resistant to chlorine, so proper filters or boiling is recommended.

Chemical Contaminants

Chemical contaminants may be natural or man made. While there are areas with high levels of naturally occurring elements, such as arsenic or uranium, most groundwater with excessive chemical contaminants can be traced back to human activities. High levels of nitrate often trace back to agricultural practices, metals from mining operations, and pesticides and herbicides from orchards or row crops . These are just a few examples.

Nitrates

Elevated nitrate levels occur in groundwater across a wide expanse of the Redoubt. Wells can get contaminated in areas with a history of unregulated or poorly regulated agricultural practices, poorly functioning septic tanks, decomposition of plant matter, or erosion from natural deposits. Water with high nitrate levels is unsafe for pregnant and lactating females to drink and infants below six months old, due to nitrates interference with the ability of infants blood to carry oxygen. It is also linked to birth defects and miscarriages. Along with bacteria, nitrate testing is a requirement in many jurisdictions.

Hardness

Hardness, originally understood to be the capacity of water to precipitate soap, is the quantity of calcium and magnesium in water. While not a health concern, hard water can lead to mineral buildup in hot water heaters and coffee makers and residue on dishes after going through automatic dish washers. (Hopefully, these issues are not on your list of concerns for TEOTWAWKI.) One legitimate concern is that it takes more soap to get things clean with hard water. Water softeners are standard household fixtures in many parts of the country. Grid down, maintaining water treatment systems might prove problematic, but appropriate technology should become available in critical areas.

Iron

Iron in drinking water is not a health hazard; in fact, it is essential to good health, as iron helps transport oxygen in the blood. However, too much or the wrong kind of iron can be a nuisance. As little as 0.3 ppm can cause water to turn a reddish brown color. Iron is usually found in the ferrous, or reduced, form in well water, as there is little oxygen present. This form of iron can give water a disagreeable metallic taste. It can also cause vegetables cooked in the water to appear dark. When exposed to air, whether in a reservoir, pressure tank, or toilet bowl, the iron is oxidized to the ferric form. Water will become rusty as the deposits break off from the insides of pipes. The tell-tail reddish-brown stain can show up on buildings, plumbing fixtures, and even in laundry. Over time, metal pipes can become clogged. Finally, certain strains of bacteria “eat” iron and leave behind a residue that can cause an offensive odor. Treatment methods include aeration and filtration, manganese greens, and filtration, or catalytic filtration for ferrous iron treatment, and chlorination for iron bacteria.

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