Assessing the Potential for Ground Water Contamination on Your Farm
Table of Contents
Good water quality is a high priority for all rural residents. Since drinking water is usually obtained from ground water sources, every effort should be made to protect these ground water sources from contamination. Potential contaminants from agriculture such as pesticides, milking centre washwater, manure and silage leachate can pose a threat to ground water quality if not properly managed.
Figure 1. All rural residents want a safe drinking water supply.
Reducing the risk of contamination from your property takes careful planning. A first step in planning is knowing what you've got and what risk it poses. The potential for ground water contamination once a contaminant enters the soil varies from farm to farm and depends on many factors.
This Factsheet discusses the key factors affecting contaminant movement towards the ground water as well as provides a simple risk assessment procedure so that you can more effectively plan corrective actions and management practices.
The quality of ground water is degraded when water carries contaminants downward infiltrating through the soil to the ground water without being adequately filtered or naturally treated. Once a ground water aquifer is contaminated, all water wells drawing water from that aquifer are at risk of being polluted. A contaminated water well can result in health problems and a costly cleanup process.
The potential for ground water contamination and subsequent water well pollution depends on many factors. The following three key factors are the focus of this Factsheet:
The texture of the soil is the most important determining factor in measuring the ease and speed with which water and contaminants can move through the soil to ground water. Coarse textured soils such as sands have large pore spaces between the soil particles, allowing water to quickly percolate downward to the ground water. There is minimal time in which filtration and/or natural treatment of the water can take place. Conversely, in fine textured soils such as clays, the movement of water and contaminants through the soil is very slow. These fine textured soils act as a natural filter, allowing bacteria and other soil organisms to break down contaminants before they reach the ground water. Fine textured soils provide much better natural protection for ground water than coarse grained soils.
Figure 2. Soil texture and associated permeability.
Open fractures in the bedrock allow a rapid movement of water and contaminants to the ground water. If the depth of soil over the bedrock is shallow, there is little opportunity for the soil or soil organisms to treat the water as it moves through this shallow layer of soil to the bedrock. Once the water and contaminants reach the bedrock, movement to the ground water is often very swift.
The treatment of contaminated water primarily takes place in soil above the water table (the unsaturated zone of soil). A high water table results in a short travel time for water and contaminants to move through this unsaturated soil before reaching the ground water, therefore, there is little opportunity for the treatment of water to occur. Water table depths can fluctuate dramatically depending on the season of the year. The water table is usually the highest in the spring or fall.
On the farm, there are many potential sources of contaminants. They
are usually classified as point sources where potential contaminants
are concentrated or stored in one spot (e.g., manure piles, fuel storages,
etc.) or non-point sources where the potential contaminants are spread
out over a greater area (e.g., pesticide or fertilizer applied to fields).
Regardless of the source, some farms or areas of farms may be much more
susceptible to ground water contamination if contaminants enter the
ground. Table 1 is a simple approach to estimate the potential for ground
water contamination. Please note that this assessment method is only
intended to be a guide to what might happen taking into account the
three factors previously discussed - soil texture, bedrock, and depth
to ground water. The primary consideration is the relative speed with
which contaminants might move through the soil. It is assumed that the
soil profile is uniform and not layered.
To determine a site's potential for ground water contamination, find the texture of your soil in the first column and move horizontally to the appropriate "Depth to Ground Water" column.
The following guidelines may be helpful in using Table 1:
To obtain a more accurate assessment of the potential for ground water contamination on your farm, you should look for varying hydrogeological conditions such as changes in soil texture, bedrock types and depth to ground water and carry out enough site inspections to account for these variances. Further, always assess the farmstead area around the farm buildings separately from the field areas.
The potential for contamination of a specific water well on your farm can be further assessed by considering the separation distance from the potential contaminant source to the water well. The greater the separation distance, the less chance that the contaminant will affect the well, either through ground water flow or by surface flow. By locating in Table 2 your site's potential for ground water contamination (from Table 1), the minimum recommended separation distances between potential contaminant sources and water wells can be obtained.
In Table 2, potential contaminant sources may include point sources around the farmstead such as manure storages, fuel storages, septic systems, pesticides storages, etc. or non-point sources like manure or pesticide application on fields.
New and expanding facilities on farms in Ontario that are phased-in
under the NMA, 2002, must meet the minimum setback distance requirements
of Regulation 267/03, as amended.
*Indicates the minimum separation distance required between the type of water well and a potential source of contamination to be consistent with water well construction regulations under the Ontario Water Resources Act (Reg. 903).
A high or moderate ground water contamination potential is an indication of the speed that contaminants could move downward to the water table if a spill or leak occurred. The result could be a rapidly contaminated aquifer and a potentially polluted water well on your property and your neighbours'. If this high risk exists on your property, special care should be taken not to have leaks or spills of contaminants. Regular inspection, maintenance, and water testing of the water well should be done. Containment of manure, livestock yard runoff, milking centre washwater, etc. is necessary to reduce leaching down to ground water. As for field areas, manure and fertilizer must be applied at the proper rate to meet the crop's requirements and at the proper time of year to maximize the use of the nutrients, otherwise, valuable nutrients could infiltrate down to ground water.
For more information see Best Management Practices (BMP's) booklets:
For more information:
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