Posted by Jeff Wahl on 8/23/2021 to Thoughts on Water
Rural communities across the country consist of residences in close proximity to each other, commonly known as a “hamlet”. These “hamlet’s” often do not have municipal water and sewer services due to their small population and area size, age of original settlement and the costs that are associated with these services. Water quality is often overlooked as assumptions are made for the distances from well to septic systems.
Located on the shores of Mindemoya Lake, this subdivision is roughly in the geographic center of Manitoulin Island, just outside the town of Mindemoya, Ontario, Canada. It consists of approximately one hundred and twenty five homes located in close proximity to one another. The majority of residences have well water sources and all use septic systems with no municipal drains or water services available.
Well & Septic Systems
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) identifies that a well should be located at a minimum of 50 feet from any source of contamination. This is only if the well casing is watertight to a depth of 20 feet; otherwise the separation distance should be 100 feet or more. Potential sources of contamination may include: septic systems, manure storages, fuel storages, agricultural fields (manure or fertilizer runoff) and roads (salt runoff). Proper distances for well to septic distances are adhered to in new construction in an attempt to preserve water quality. This subdivision is well established and therefore has very limited new construction of homes. The existing homes pre-date some of the current distance requirements. As a result, there are situations where wells are in close proximity to other wells, roads and septic systems. In 2020, a study published by Dr. Heather Murphy from Temple University concluded definitively that ”septic systems can represent an important source of contamination in private well water supplies.”
This same study identified U.S. EPA44 regulation specifying that “areas with >40 septic systems per square mile are areas at high risk of groundwater contamination and that septic system density is a major contributor to the vulnerability of groundwater supplies due to human sewage.” In comparison, the Hodgson subdivision is roughly 1 square mile in dimension and possesses approximately 125 working septic systems. This is more than three times the recommended number for density.
I live in this subdivision. The local area consists of fractured limestone beneath the soil, as is the case with most of Manitoulin Island. Water travels underground freely through these fractures without us knowing which direction it will take. Setback distances for well and septic systems are a guideline and not a guarantee for water quality. A health unit test is for e.Coli and Coliform bacteria only. It does not test for other contaminants that entered a water supply from a nearby septic system.
Sample Well & Septic Density In Hodgson Subdivision
Consider the volume of household detergents, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, shampoo, toothpaste, makeup, soaps, chemicals, paint, grease, oils, fecal matter and other contaminants that make their way down drains in this small rural subdivision. This occurs on a daily basis without regulation or proper testing requirements at private residences within the province of Ontario. It is possible that what you put down the drain in your residence could be found flowing from a neighbouring house faucet due to the fractured nature of limestone with the residents being none the wiser.
Septic systems are not complete water treatment systems on their own and it has been proven that contaminants can go untreated as they make their way through the leaching bed into groundwater sources. Dr. Murphy’s findings are very compelling and raise light on the need for additional water testing options for people living in rural areas with no regulations to ensure the quality of water coming from their wells.
Best Practice Recommendation
Do not assume that a bacterial health unit test is for all contaminants in your water. If you are unsure about your water quality or have questions, consult a certified water treatment professional who can provide you with the necessary information to make a personal choice as to what quality of water is acceptable in your home or cottage.
Volume 5 - Issue 4 Wahl H2O - Water Awareness
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