May 05, 2010

Making sure our water stays plentiful and safe

As published in The Erin Advocate

I once rented part of a farm house, where the landlord was so worried about his well water that he would turn off the water supply if I ran the shower for more than 15 minutes.

My habits have become more conservative over the years, but like most environmental efforts, it is never quite enough. Now I'm being challenged to limit showers to three minutes.

The advice comes from Wellington Water Watchers, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving this valuable resource. Ontario has one-third of the entire earth's fresh water supply within and along its borders.

They are also urging people to turn off the tap while brushing their teeth, get a rain barrel for watering gardens, install low-flow shower heads, switch to low-flow toilets and give up drinking bottled water – both to save money and reduce the demand on well water.

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) has still more advice, asking people to choose drought-resistant grass and avoid mowing it short, to reduce the need for watering. They suggest using soaker hoses instead of sprinklers, and leaving clippings on the lawn.

"Here in the Credit Valley Watershed, we've had a relatively dry fall and winter," said John Kinkead, CVC Director of Water Resources. "If this trend continues, we're going to see lower groundwater tables and reduced flows in area streams. Water conservation measures will be even more important this year."

Erin homes rely on wells, whether private or municipal, and it is easy to take that supply for granted. The Town reports that the average urban household uses 750 litres per day: 35% for showers and baths, 30% for toilet flushing, 20% for laundry, 10% for kitchen/drinking and 5% for cleaning.

Opportunities for waste abound. Dishwashers and laundry washing machines are often run without full loads. A slowly-leaking faucet may waste 70 litres per day, adding $10 to your 90-day water bill. A steadily running toilet could waste 2,500 litres a day.

Erin Water Superintendent Frank Smedley said a dry summer is not likely to force restrictions on the municipal supply, since the Town's wells are quite deep, and are not directly affected by short-term variations in surface water. Shallow private wells are at greater risk of shortages and contamination.

Get more information on local water at Check out the Ontario Drinking Water Surveillance Program, which includes Erin, at

While the Town does extensive testing for bacteria and chemicals, owners of private wells are legally responsible for the quality of their drinking water. The Ministry of Health recommends testing each summer, fall and especially spring, when surface water is plentiful.

Test if you notice any change in the clarity, colour, taste or smell of your water, after major plumbing work, after an extended dry spell or after a lengthy period of non-use. Three samplings spaced one to three weeks apart are needed to be sure of a stable supply.

Testing for bacteria is free, but I am sure many people do not do it, because of the inconvenience. You can pick up a test bottle at the Town of Erin offices on Trafalgar Road, but the bottle has to be delivered in person to the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health offices in Guelph, Fergus or Orangeville, with restrictions on acceptable times.

Results are mailed out, with the most common issue being "total coliform" contamination. These bacteria do not usually make people sick, but you may need to repair or disinfect your well. Evidence of E. coli bacteria is serious, meaning you must stop drinking the water until it is treated. For advice, call the health unit at 1-800-265-7293.

Testing service is much better in Halton Region, where they will mail you a test bottle if you phone, or request it on-line. Halton Hills residents can drop off samples not only at the health office at 93 Main St. S. in Georgetown (as I do too), but at the Acton and Georgetown libraries, including some evening hours. You can sign up for testing reminders by mail or email.

Halton also provides additional free testing for nitrates, a compound that can come from fertilizer, sewage or plant decay. It is particularly dangerous for infants, and cannot be boiled away. The Ministry of Health recommends testing once a year for nitrates, but in most places it is at your own expense.

For nitrate and all other chemical testing, you have to shop from a long list of labs published on the Ministry of the Environment website. Google "Ontario accredited labs", or call 416-235-6370 for assistance.