I can assure you that the subject of “ground water” had never come up in casual dinner conversations at my house until a dinner guest recounted his experience while visiting family and friends in his hometown in the US upper Midwest. It seems that homeowners there were detecting higher than average levels of certain EPA-regulated contaminants in their well water. The local water commission confirmed that contamination of the ground water had apparently occurred. However, the commission also confirmed that the EPA does not regulate private water systems and that the homeowner is solely responsible for filtering any contaminants which might exist.
My immediate thought was that this was probably an isolated occurrence, the result of some sort of “Superfund” activity by an irresponsible manufacturing operation. But further research shows that this is far from an isolated occurrence. In fact, our underground water is becoming increasingly contaminated all across the US, and not just in rural areas.
What is this thing called “ground water” anyway?
Simply stated, when rain falls or snow melts into the ground, it never stops moving. Some of the water flows along the surface and ends up in streams, lakes, or rivers. Some evaporates quickly back into the air. Some seeps into the soil, providing nourishment to plants and root systems. What's left of the water then flows through layers of sand, soil, and rock until it reaches a rock layer which blocks its progress.
The sand, soil, and rock above the blockage then saturate as seepage from the surface continues. The topmost saturation level at any time is called the “water table”. The water caught in saturation below the water table is called “ground water”.
And this ground water can move too. Once it can not see down any further, it can and often does move sideways, forming underground “aquifers”. In short, these aquifers can carry rain water many miles from where it actually fell to earth.
The USGS reports that over 50% of the US population relies upon ground water for drinking and other household uses, and nearly 100% in rural areas. It's further estimated that 75% of cities and manufacturing facilities use ground water in some way.
What's contaminating ground water in the US?
The population explosion, aging infrastructure, and industrial expansion the US has experienced over the last 50 years are having an increasingly negative effect on the quality of our ground water. More organic and inorganic chemicals, minerals, and bacteria are being released into water water aquifers than ever before.
Contamination sources include, but are not limited to, large and small industrial operations, landfills, oil and gas mining operations, agricultural fertilization, animal feeding operations, malfunctioning waste treatment facilities, septic systems, and even gas stations.
Further, the Groundwater Foundation estimates that there are over 10,000,000 underground commercial and private petroleum and chemical storage tanks located throughout urban and rural areas of the US, many of which are corroding and leaking due to age or lack of maintenance. Additionally, there is thought to be over 20,000 known abandoned and uncontrolled hazardous waste sites releasing toxic contaminants into the ground water, and that number is growing yearly.
Amazingly, even some treatments that are used to ensure the “safety” of our drinking water, eg Chlorine, can combine with rotting material to form known carcininogens in ground water.
Why should we be concerned?
Presence of these contaminants in drinking water can lead to serious health issues. Gastrointestinal, neurological, vascular, and reproductive problems have been seen across all demographics in both rural and urban settings, the severest of which are often seen in infants (blue baby syndrome), children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems due to chemotherapy, transplant medications, AIDS, etc. If the source of your drinking water is local underground water, you should be concerned and become an informed consumer.
What can we do about it?
Government agencies such as the CDC and EPA are responsible for the safety of our drinking water in the US. They and special interest non-profit organizations such as the Groundwater Foundation and the Environmental Working Group recommend:
- Getting educated in local ground water issues by requesting water quality reports from your local water commission. Review relevant water quality reports published by both the CDC and EPA to better understand the trends in ground water contamination.
- If you're drinking water is sourced by local groundwater, get your water tested annually by a certified testing lab.
- Review your drinking water filtration options to ensure safe drinking water in your home.
Well, that innocent dinner conversation encouraged me to research the issues surrounding water quality both locally and across the US. I've also contacted my local water commission and requested a testing kit. In the meantime, I'll be reviewing remediation options. Hopefully, I will not need them. One thing for sure though, I will not take my water quality for granted anymore!