Spring is the time for testing your farm’s water supply

Testing for every possible contaminant is expensive — here’s what should be at the top of the checklist

Woman Pouring Glass Of Water From Tap In Kitchen
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It’s up to rural landowners to keep their water safe — and spring is the ideal time to get that job done, says a water quality expert.

“Winter can accumulate pollutants, then spring thaw and run-off carries the previous six months’ worth of pollutants down to groundwater and sideways towards surface supplies,” said Mitch Golay, manager of Red Deer-based Central Labs, which does water testing for several industries including agriculture.

The risks of a contaminated water supply cannot be overstated, he added.

“I come from a farm in eastern Saskatchewan. I’ve come to realize that the viability and success of a farming operation — or even just a residence — is directly hinged on its access to the amount and quality of water,” said Golay.

“I’ve seen lots of health problems in my family and… much of it may have been due to the quality of water we drank from our farm well. When we had dry years, we had to ration the water supply and limit our lifestyles to maintain the water supply or else truck water in.”

Alberta Health Services recommends well owners do a bacteriological analysis up to four times per year and a chemical analysis every three to five years. Lists of water sample bottle pickup/drop-off locations can be found at albertahealthservices.ca (search for ‘sample your water’).

The more you test, the lower your risk, but the schedule can be flexible depending on specific risk factors, said Golay.

“If you have porous soil and lots of rain with potential pollutants nearby, you may want to test often. If you don’t have cattle or other livestock poop which can run off, a test every year or two may suffice. The same goes if you don’t have natural water sources with things like giardia or other natural contaminants in proximity to your well.”

Identify the biggest risks

Farmers sometimes bring Golay a sample and ask, ‘What’s wrong with my water?’

That question can be answered, but requires a series of tests and that’s costly. So it pays to know what you’re looking for.

“There are so many chemicals and contaminants — natural or synthetic — that labs can test for,” he said “We often get samples in and someone asks, ‘What is making this water do this?’ Unfortunately, if we tested for every chemical or biological factor out there, that would be too extensive. We have to be told what to test for before we can test for it.”

But a few common ‘go-to’ tests cover the majority of issues with rural drinking water in Alberta.

First, there are some particularly harmful bacteria that should be checked for in a well or surface water used for consumption. One of these is E. coli.

“E. coli is present in nature but highly abundant in fecal matter,” he said. “The one strain, O157, is extremely dangerous to humans in that it’s very viable in human bodies due to temperature, pH, and other factors. When you hear of people getting E. coli infections, it’s very often the O157 strain.”

It’s enough of a concern that Canada Mortgage and Housing requires proof it is “not present” in water supplies before it will back a mortgage.

“When we test for other ‘total’ coliforms, we’re identifying other bacteria that originated from surface contamination — in the case of construction or recent repairs, for example — and other disease-causing organisms such as giardia, also known as ‘beaver fever,’” said Golay.

“If you’re having trouble with your water source you may also want to look at things like sulphur or iron bacteria or perhaps ligands or tannins, which we’ve found to be quite prevalent in central Alberta.”

Other water contaminants

If there is oilfield activity in the area, testing for hydrocarbons is a good idea, said Golay.

“Some of these hydrocarbons, believe it or not, actually ‘dissolve’ in water and in very low concentrations they can be harmful. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene — the BTEX chemicals — are very common items to be concerned with, even though some of these are naturally occurring. Outside of these, different hydrocarbon fractions may be present from adjacent oil activity.”

There is a long list of metals — such as lead and arsenic — that have health impacts over a long period of time or with high levels of exposure, said Golay. Non-metals such as chloride and nitrates can also affect the safety (or potability) of drinking water. Other factors that can impact potability include hardness, pH, and total salt levels.

Sodium, calcium, and magnesium are also types of metals. Our bodies require them, but not too much of them.

“Health Canada has a very long interpretation of what levels of all of these are good, bad or ‘esthetically unpleasant,’” said Golay. “It is best to consult a health professional or the Government of Canada website on water quality.”

Regulations on water quality and related information can be found at the Government of Canada website (search for “water quality and health”).

A representative sample is key for any water test.

“A general rule of thumb when it comes to taking a water sample is ‘the results are only as good as the sample,’” he said. “Don’t turn on taps and get the first bit of water out of a hydrant — some cow may have licked the end of the hydrant. Let it run a bit and get water right from its source.

“The same applies to surface water. Don’t grab a small bit of sample from beside a pile of cow dung. Instead, gather maybe a bit from one side of the pond, a bit from the other side, etc. and combine them for an overall result.”

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