The L. A. Times recently reported that hundreds of private drinking water wells in California have run dry. Tulare County is delivering water to hundreds of residents because their wells are dry and they are without water. The water level in the Central Valley has fallen and wells have gone dry from a combination of extended drought and unsustainable use of the groundwater. There is no easy or cheap solution to a dry well and groundwater in California is a limited resource. Though surface water is allocated in California based on a series of rights, there is no management of groundwater in California or much of the country. Protecting groundwater resources includes ensuring we use the resource sustainability.
If your water is supplied by a well, you also need to be aware of the factors that impact your water supply and respond to them, making sure to live within your water budget. There are dry years and wet years and you need to know which you are in. Direct determination of the groundwater level in your well requires a water level meter which can cost hundreds of dollars, but the condition of the aquifer can be obtained from a proxy well. The U.S. Geological Survey maintains monitoring wells throughout the nation and you can often gain important information from these wells. However, there is little you can do to prevent neighbors from using the groundwater for irrigation or even to encourage reducing water use during a drought. During drought groundwater use increases. As a nation we use over 75 billion gallons of groundwater each day. Irrigation is typically the largest user of this water. Techniques and frameworks for managing groundwater resources are still evolving.
While community wells are required to test their water under the Safe Drinking Water Act, if you have your own well, then the responsibility for ensuring that your family and friends are drinking safe water rests with you. Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. You cannot taste bacterial contamination from human and animal waste, nor nitrate/ nitrite contamination. Many chemical contaminants cannot be tasted or smelled at levels that can impact your health. The National Groundwater Association recommends that all drinking water wells should be tested for Coliform bacteria and E Coli annually. Testing is the only way to detect contamination in your water. Testing is not mandatory, but should be done to ensure your family’s safety.
Groundwater comes from rain water and snow melt percolating into the ground. Typically, the deeper the well the further away is the water origination and the older the water. The groundwater age is a function of local geology, the amount of precipitation and the rate that water is pumped out of the aquifer. Geology also determines the ease with which water and contaminants can travel through an aquifer; microorganisms in the soil and from wildlife and spilled chemicals or contaminated runoff can travel into groundwater supplies through cracks, fissures, and other pathways of opportunity like fractured rock systems. The land surface through which groundwater is recharged must remain open and uncontaminated to maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater.
Nitrate concentrations are often elevated in shallow groundwater because of agricultural and suburban development. Bacteria and nitrate contamination to groundwater can be caused by human and animal waste. Poorly managed septic systems, horses, backyard poultry can cause contaminate groundwater by overwhelming the ability of the soil to filer these contaminants or finding an opportunistic pathway through a fissure or other geological entry. An emerging concern in recent years has been the occurrence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in septic waste water. Nitrate contamination can serve as a proxy for other trace contaminants in septic systems. Heavy local use of pesticides for ornamental gardens or farms, buried waste, and leaks from underground fuel tanks can be sources of contamination.
Households can introduce solvents, motor oil, and paint; paint thinner, water treatment chemicals and others substances by spilling them, or pouring chemicals into the ground or down the drain into a septic system. Groundwater protection depends on the entire community. The National Groundwater Association recommends: That everyone store hazardous household substances safely in a sealed container in a secure place and use hazardous substances only according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Hazardous substances should be disposed of safely and properly. Be mindful of your water use, install WaterSense fixtures and limit exterior water use. If you own water well, make sure that all possible contamination sources are a safe distance from the wellhead (50-100 feet), make sure your septic system is operating and maintained properly and is regularly inspected and the tank is regularly pumped. Also, test your water annually.