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Guest Opinion: It's Groundwater Awareness Week; test your well

Of all the water available on Earth, only 1 percent is available for our use. And of the useable 1 percent, 99 percent comes from groundwater. Only 0.86 percent of freshwater is present in lakes, and 0.02 percent is in rivers. These facts, published by the National Groundwater Association, are surprising to those unfamiliar with the vastness of groundwater reservoirs beneath the surface of the earth, reservoirs that are sometimes left out of basin water quality protection efforts.

However, with 25 to 50 percent of Oregon’s population depending on groundwater for their drinking water supply, and 3,800 new wells being drilled in Oregon each year, this resource has earned some recognition.

Rural residents are familiar with how water from one well might have a sulfur odor, another might contain boron, which kills their plants, and another might contain minerals that create hardness leading to the use of water softening units.

But there are other, tasteless and odorless, constituents in groundwater that should also be on our radar here in the Rogue Valley. arsenic and fluoride occur naturally in the groundwater in certain areas. A Department of Environmental Quality study conducted in 2011 detected arsenic in 44 percent of 36 wells tested in Jackson County. Elevated fluoride was detected in 3 percent of wells tested. The Environmental Protection Agency‘s cancer-related health advisory is two micrograms per liter of arsenic, a concentration associated with a 1 in 10,000 cancer probability.

Fluoride, commonly viewed as a positive constituent in our diets, is a concern for children when present at concentrations above 2 milligrams per liter (mg/l) — and can cause mottling of teeth. Concentrations above 4 mg/l can cause skeletal fluorosis in adults or increase the likelihood of bone fractures.

A total coliform test costs about $40 and should be conducted annually. Often the source of bacterial contamination of a well is localized and can be treated at the source.

Nitrate in groundwater is more often present in large areas — related to densely located septic systems, malfunctioning systems, or agricultural practices, past or present. There are many areas of the Rogue Valley with elevated nitrate. Concentrations of 10 mg/l and above can cause “blue baby syndrome” in infants, and affect pregnant or nursing mothers and the elderly. Elevated nitrate is also an indicator that other contaminants may have entered your well. Well safety information is available on the Oregon Health Authority’s Domestic Well Safety Program (DWSP) website at http://healthoregon.org/wells. In addition, DWSP and JSWCD will  host several free nitrate testing events in the coming months. Bring a cold sample of your well water to the April 25 Rogue Valley Earth Day and/or the OSU Master Gardener Spring Fair on May 2-3 and find out about your nitrate concentrations on the spot. Visit www.jswcd.org for additional events yet to be scheduled.

To reduce inputs of nitrate to groundwater, technical support for agricultural best management practices is available through Oregon State University and the Jackson Soil & Water Conservation Service. Septic systems ideally should be pumped every two or three years, depending on household size and use. Licensed pumpers can give advice about the need for maintenance. Don’t drive over your septic drainfield and do limit what goes down your drain. Chemicals and excessive chlorine can kill the bacteria that make your system work and can percolate down into the groundwater and perhaps to your well. Great resources are available at http://wellwater.oregonstate.edu.

Take action this Groundwater Awareness Week: Test your well water, pump your septic tank and take steps to ensure your fertilizer and irrigation use matches your crop needs. If you don’t have a well or septic system, be grateful that groundwater provides a reservoir that, if kept clean and protected, will be there when we need it.

Amy Sager Patton, R.G., is a hydrogeologist with Patton Environmental LLC. She managed the DEQ Groundwater Protection Program for eight years and has worked as an environmental consultant in seven states conducting contaminant assessments, site cleanups and public education events.