Monday, February 6, 2012

Bad Water – Test it to Know

Bad water is a term that has popped up several times in community meetings. It is vague, and could mean almost anything. Though neighbors have declared at community meetings that old-timers “all say the water is bad”, they refuse to spend any money to test their drinking water wells, opting, instead, to buy bottled water to drink. The water they are calling “bad” is from the northwestern portion of the Culpeper groundwater basin that provides water to all our wells, and happens in fact to be quite good source water. When I purchased my home, one of my contingencies was water quality. I had the right to exit the purchase if the water quality was unacceptable to me. Though the seller was willing to accept my vague contingency all we could negotiate was a 12 day contingency period and in reality I had less time than that. The power needed to be turned on to operate the water pump, the pressure tank drained and the water run to clear out the well and lines which had been unused for six months.

There are reasonably priced informational oriented analysis package available to the consumer; however, the turn-around time for these products is about 4 weeks and the analytical limits were higher than I wanted for this first analysis. I was interested in obtaining a water supply as pristine as possible, and I would refuse any traces of any industrial compounds. I was specifically looking for solvents, hydrocarbon fuels, heavy metals and pesticide traces that might have resulted from previous land use or difficult taste quality issues. I determined my best option to verify water quality within the transaction time frame appeared to be to use an US EPA certified laboratory to perform a rush compliance analysis of the water sample for every primary and secondary contaminants listed under the Safe Drinking Water Act while simultaneously researching the history of the land.

The good news is the results confirmed that the on-site drinking water well provided water that met the Safe Drinking Water Standards and was free of even trace industrial contaminants only having traces (parts per million) of naturally occurring minerals such as iron, barium, cooper and moderately hard water (the presence of calcium carbonate), but even these secondary criteria were below recommended levels. I concluded the groundwater supplying the house was uncontaminated from its previous use as a dairy/cattle operation and the water quality good. To obtain that analysis within the time frame of the contingency period I spent $1,635.00, not an amount of money I could spend again, but the house was the most expensive purchase of my life and I did not want to purchase a house with that ambiguous “bad” water. The water also tasted good to me. What I missed during the rush analysis and investigation of the site was the risks of the local geology. Coming from California I had not been familiar with the local geological variations.

Groundwater flows under ambient pressure from Bull Run Mountain towards Bull Run, the river. Thus, groundwater flows west to east. The soils in our neighborhood and the surrounding area are described by the USGS as Balls Bluff Siltstone with a gravel, sand and clay type bedding plane. (That is the technical name for the flat plane, edged orange red rocks that are everywhere you put a shovel.) In the siltstone bedding plane, the fractures within the rocks run predominately north south. Thus while ground water flows generally speaking west to east, water or a contaminant that catches a fracture will carry the contaminant to drinking water depth in a north south pattern. Contaminants can enter the groundwater at these fractures and zigzag through the neighborhood. Though the neighborhood is bound by rivers to the east and south which serve as hydraulic breaks within the neighborhood we are an enclosed fracture system with a potential of contamination from the north and west. There is no natural attenuation in a fractured system. Any malfunctioning septic system, improper disposal, mishandling of waste at the nearby horse farm or spill on any property has the potential to impact the drinking water well of other residents to the south, southeast or east. There is no guarantee that the water will remain uncontaminated so I need to monitor it regularly as well as keep an eye out for likely sources of contamination. I have continued to test my water well at least once a year using much more affordable options that are available.

The Prince William County Service Authority, PWSA, provides public drinking water to various communities in Prince William County through several public supply systems one of which is the Bull Run Mountain and Evergreen System supplying those communities, our nearest neighbors. The Bull Run Mountain and Evergreen Water System is supplied from eight deep-drilled rock wells located throughout the water system in the lower part of Bull Run Mountain south of us but also part of the northwest portion of the Culpeper Basin. The PWSA describes the groundwater in this area as rated as high for susceptibility to contamination. “These ground water sources are constructed in an area that tends to promote migration of contaminants with land use activities of concern…within a 1000-ft radius of the well site.” Like all public water supplies the Bull Run Mountain and Evergreen Water System is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act, SDWA, to test their water monthly for compliance. I review their reports to track the northwestern Culpeper Basin water quality.

Under the SDWA, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, sets standards for 91 contaminants in drinking water including bacteria and disinfection by products. For each of these contaminants, EPA sets a legal limit, called a maximum contaminant level. EPA requires that all public water supplies be tested for this list of contaminants on a regular basis and meet these minimum standards. In addition, EPA sets secondary standards for less hazardous substances based on aesthetic characteristics of taste, smell and appearance, which public water systems and states can choose to adopt or not. Though 91 contaminants is a lot, there are approximately 80,000 chemicals in use in our society and an uncounted number of pathogens and while monthly testing is required, only bacterial contamination is tested each month the other contaminants are tested over a longer time frame in the Bull Run Mountain and Evergreen System. Nonetheless, the water quality has remained consistently good during the past year.

Though a couple of the public supply wells are filtered for sediment removal, the PWSA states in their annual report of water quality. “We are proud to be one of the few Virginia community water systems that do not require disinfection treatment. The Bull Run Mountain and Evergreen Water System is Virginia’s largest non-chlorinated community water supply. We pride ourselves with having pristine natural source waters. Most wells are dosed with sodium hydroxide to raise the pH and reduce the water’s natural corrosiveness.” The public supply homes and businesses are receiving water directly from the groundwater source with a little sodium hydroxide added to neutralize it. That is a verification of the base water quality. My well draws from under 100 feet below grade and has consistently tested at neutral pH every year. I do not treat my water, when I examine the analysis each year I have seen no need for any treatment.

Routine testing has shown that the natural source waters in the northwest portion of the Culpeper Basin are pristine. The only way to know if your water is good water or bad water is to test it. Contamination from human and animal waste and chemicals can be real health hazards and should be addressed immediately. However, most of the water quality issues with private wells are from naturally occurring contamination or impurities. While many natural contaminants such as iron, sulfate, and manganese are not considered serious health hazards, they can give drinking water an unpleasant taste, odor, or color. Do not rely solely on water treatment salespeople for water analysis. The tests they perform are often crude and sometimes misleading. They are selling water treatment. The Virginia Household Water Quality Program subsidizes the analysis cost for private drinking water well clinics in a few counties each year. In 2012 Prince William, Loudoun, Frederic are among the counties that will have clinics. The analysis offered by the state program now includes: total coliform, E. Coli, sulfate, nitrate, fluoride, copper, lead, arsenic, hardness, total dissolved solids, pH, manganese, iron, sodium and is estimated to cost $55 for each household. Take the time to attend the clinic and test your water. You can save $100-$200 and get free help in interpreting the results. Join us and know the quality of your water.