Earth Matters: Water must be protected from pollution threats

The water we drink was once a much simpler thing.

A hundred years ago, the greatest danger to water supplies out in the country came from a misplaced outhouse or a few cows and horses. When farms were half a mile apart, natural filtration could solve a great many problems.

By contrast in 2015, it’s impossible for these natural filtering processes to work when people, homes and businesses are spread about this countryside.

Often, the water bubbling out of the springs of the region enjoyed that same natural filtration. But Ryan Brown’s recent feature on roadside springs (Altoona Mirror, Aug. 9, 2015) explained that those seemingly pristine waters usually are not.

Interestingly, we have known about the problems with these springs for more than 30 years. Penn State Altoona biology instructor John Lennox and geography instructor Garry Burkle tested springs at the edge of Cambria County and all across Blair County in the late ’70s. The now-retired professors found high levels of bacterial contamination and warned people of the potential health affects in their joint study.

Brown’s feature article reinforced the earlier study and called attention to the ongoing struggles with groundwater contamination. It also testifies to the public’s misunderstanding of the causes of contamination and the belief that water that appears clean cannot possibly be bad.

All across Pennsylvania, places that were sparsely populated rural areas in 1900 are much different today. Scattered wells and remote springs are not so isolated anymore. Beyond the “natural” pollutants that come from animals, bacterial pollution is added to both ground and surface water by septic systems and agricultural activities.

A newer family of pollutants (that are more persistent) has become a greater problem in recent decades. These include toxic weed controls, insecticides, solvents and other similar petroleum-based chemicals, automotive fluids that run off roads, parking lots and driveways, illegally dumped trash and even nitrate fertilizers. These chemicals are not living organisms, so chlorination or ultraviolet lights do nothing to remove them from water.

So even if the bacterial or parasitic pollution proves to be minimal, these toxic chemicals last much longer before degrading into less harmful substances. While bacterial testing is common, toxic chemical testing for homeowners and businesses is rare because of its high cost. The infrequent monitoring for these toxic chemicals is even more reason to prevent (rather than try to clean up) this sort of pollution.

Pennsylvania registers new wells drilled throughout the state but still has no comprehensive wellhead protection laws and does little groundwater monitoring. The responsibility of monitoring private wells falls entirely upon the owner of the well.

The lack of groundwater protection laws has also resulted in inconsistencies in well drilling record keeping. Several state agencies have tried to gather and compile well depths and locations over the last 50 years, but a lack of staff and funding has made that difficult to do. Though the recordkeeping has been spotty, a listing of wells is now maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. If a well was registered by the well driller, you can look up the details at www.dcnr.state.pa.us/topogeo/groundwater/pagwis/records/index.htm.

Groundwater still faces many threats, making it even more important that we understand how we can help protect it.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ ircenvironment.org) writes about environmental issues every other week in the Mirror.