Rural Drinking Water Challenges

When you live in the city it’s easy to ignore the complications of getting good drinking water. All you have to do is turn on the tap and the treated water comes flowing out. Though there’s the odd city resident who feels that municipal water treatment—fluoridation in particular—is damaging to their health, they don’t realize that people who rely on drinking water from drilled or shallow wells have much more significant issues to manage.

Right now the big water quality issue in our rural area is the Save Shawnigan Water campaign. The BC government has—ludicrously and against the advice of independent experts—approved a toxic soil dump on the south side of Shawnigan Lake, which is a drinking water supply. The dump is in an area with fractured bedrock near a stream that feeds the lake, thus toxins from the contaminated soil can seep into both the groundwater and surface water supplies. I agree with those who protest day after day against this dump that it’s a terrible thing for our watershed.

When we moved here just under two years ago, however, we were mainly concerned with our own water supply. Before we bought our house, we did what most responsible buyers do for acreage properties: we tested the well water. While it had some iron and sediment in it, it was mostly a cosmetic issue that could largely be addressed with a whole house sediment filter.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we started to notice an unpleasant odour coming from the cloudy water in the toilet tanks, and when water left in a mug on the bedside table had a sheen on it after a few days. We did another water test just over a year after the first one, and discovered our water was in pretty bad shape. It wasn’t just a bit of iron and sediment anymore: now we had high levels of tannins, and the non-coliform bacteria were off the charts.

We weren’t the only ones with well issues. Three of our neighbours were also having well problems, and no one was sure what was causing them. Had the long, dry summer changed the water quality in the aquifer? Had the late autumn rains washed contaminants into the aquifer that had accumulated on the ground surface during the dry summer? Had our neighbourhood land use changed in some way that affected the regional aquifer?

To solve our water quality issues we started with the most basic step: shocking the well. The principle behind this process is that you kill any bacteria that are either in the well or in your household pipes. To do this, you pour chlorine bleach down the well itself until you reach a specific concentration, then run your in-house taps to bring the chlorinated water into your pipes and water tank. You let it sit for over 48 hrs, then flush it out so that you’re not drinking or washing with chlorinated water. It’s a long and laborious process that uses a lot of water (for the flushing part), and is a pain in the butt because you can’t use your water for several days.

After we’d shocked the well we had the water tested again. It still had high bacteria and tannins, suggesting that the shocking hadn’t quite rid us of all of the contaminants in the system. So we shocked it a second time. After the second shock, the water results came back with bacteria and tannin levels still present, but at values below the allowable levels for drinking water.

While this seemed like good news, we were concerned that the bacteria would continue to grow—particularly given the sediment in the water, which is an excellent vector for bacteria growth—and that they would soon exceed drinking water standards again. It was frustrating to see such a significant change in our water system compared to the test we’d done before we moved in.

Since we couldn’t identify what was causing our problematic water quality, we couldn’t solve the root cause of the problem. So we decided to install a water treatment system: a water softener (which also removes iron), a sediment filter (to capture the sediment that likely included iron and was a vector for bacteria), and a UV filter to kill any bacteria in the water. Several thousand dollars later, the whole-house water treatment system was up and running.

The grossest part was when we started running the treated water through our pipes. Chunks of debris—the same iron and sediment we’d seen in the very first test—came out of the taps and through the toilets as it was loosened up by the softened water. For several weeks after installation we were advised to run the tap for a few minutes before using the water, in order to flush some of the contaminants from inside the pipes.

It’s been two months since we had the system installed, and it’s nice to see crystal clear water in the toilet tanks, and to drink water that doesn’t have a sheen on it after sitting in a mug for a few days.

It was during the last big rainstorm—of which we’ve had many this winter—that we finally got some inkling of why our water quality had changed.

Across the front of our property, between the fence and the road, is a drainage ditch that carries water from west to east. One morning we were digging trenches to divert road runoff into the ditch instead of having it flow directly down our driveway, and discovered an upwelling spring in the ditch. It was coming from a stream across the street that was likely flowing under the road and then forced up into our ditch under pressure.

Where does that stream come from? Well, it flows through our across-the-street neighbour’s property. In the past year, she’s cleared her property to increase the number of horses and horse facilities, like riding rings. After a lot of logging, bulldozing, and trucking in loads of bark mulch, she now has at least six horses, which adds up to a lot of manure. As the stream flows through her acreage—and particularly during high rainfall events—it carries horse manure and other organics with it. That contaminated water upwells in our drainage ditch and also flows laterally to our well head, which is only ~10 m from the ditch.

To be fair, we have no hard evidence that our neighbour’s land use is the direct cause of our water quality issues. That upwelling water mainly gave us an idea of where our water quality problems stem from. If those land use practices are the culprit, there’s unfortunately there’s not much we can do about it, as individuals are permitted to do as they like on their property—regardless of the impacts on water.

I see signs all around my region admonishing us to protect our groundwater aquifer, but I’m not sure how we’re supposed to do that if we don’t manage property development and livestock manure—particularly since our region is heavily agricultural. In my neighbourhood alone I estimate that there are at least 30 horses on properties all along the street, and that doesn’t include the chickens, sheep, and/or goats. If our municipality is really serious about groundwater, why don’t they implement regulations governing the amount of livestock you can have per acre, and require some kind of waste management plan?

While the toxic soil dump is causing water quality problems in our watershed, it’s not the only source of contamination. We need to look in our own backyards, and in those of our neighbours, to acknowledge the impacts of livestock manure on water quality. The toxic soil dump may contaminate drinking water in the years to come, but my drinking water is already contaminated—and I don’t see anyone protesting about that.

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