You may not want to know what lies below — but you should

Experts say too many rural Albertans aren’t properly caring for their wells — and the price for neglect can be steep

Imagine finding mouse fur in your tap water. Or your house blowing up because of a buildup of methane in your water system.

Brandon Leask has seen both.

Although extreme examples, those are just two of the many risks that come with not paying attention to water wells, said the agricultural water engineer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Abandoned wells and improperly maintained ones are ripe for contamination.

“They present a conduit for contaminants to get into an aquifer — they could be bacterial, chemical, all sorts of stuff,” said Leask. “At the end of the day if you’re using groundwater for clean drinking water without treatment there are a lot of things that can be particularly harmful.

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“It’s hard when I have to tell someone to stop drinking their water.”

But the message is getting out. Around 5,000 people have come to Working Well workshops since 2008. The latest round of workshops has just gotten underway — for a complete schedule, visit workingwell.alberta.ca and follow the link.

“The Working Well program goes through a number of topics including proper well construction; proper maintenance and well enemies; and details the Top 10 things that can contaminate water wells,” said Leask. “If someone doesn’t know much about their water well and wants to know more it’s an opportunity for them to learn.”

Costly business

There are thousands of water wells across Alberta, some dating as far back as the 1800s, but many are unaccounted for because mandatory reporting of well drilling only became a requirement in the early ’70s. These abandoned wells can be particularly dangerous because in many cases they’ve often never been capped or decommissioned, said Leask.

To properly decommission a well, a landowner or driller must clean out debris and pumping equipment so its original bottom is exposed; disinfect any standing water; fill it with impermeable material (usually bentonite); remove the well casing if possible; and then report the decommissioning to Alberta Environment and Park’s Groundwater Information Centre.

It can be an expensive process, especially if the landowner has to drill a new well to replace a decommissioned well.

Leask works out of Red Deer and in that area, the price of a new well runs to $45 per cased foot “and that doesn’t include pump or transportation costs,” he said.

“In our grant program we average around $12,000 for a new well and that doesn’t include decommissioning,” said Leask. “It all depends on how deep a driller has to drill, how deep they have to decommission and where they’re coming from.”

Caps and pits

Improper capping and well pits are major hazards.

Making sure the well is properly capped is considered crucial enough to be enforced by regulation.

“Make sure the cap is on securely so nothing can get in from the top. Make sure the set screws are tight,” said Ken Williamson, a retired 36-year veteran of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry who helps deliver Working Well workshops.

“If they’re open, mice, spiders and all kinds of stuff can get in.

“We encourage people to go the extra mile with well capping by putting in what’s called a vermin-proof well cap. These have an O-ring around the top of the cap and a fine mesh screen to keep insects and bugs out of the top of the well.”

Well pits, a once popular way to house pumping equipment to prevent freezing in the wintertime, can also be a vector for contaminants. They were outlawed in 1993, but they still remain on many older wells.

“Well pits seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Williamson. “However, they make it easy for contaminated water to get into the area around the well and into the ground, into the well itself and the aquifer around it.

“One of the things we emphasize in the workshop is if people have these old well pits, replace them with pitless adaptors which give you a sanitary below-frost connection for your pumping system.”

Almost all new wells are pre-fitted with pitless adaptors.

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