Wells Also Polluted, Province Reminded

MANITOBA | Thursday, September 22, 2005

A science professor and an environmental activist are urging the province not to lose sight of rural well-water pollution in the rush to save Lake Winnipeg from polluted surface water. The plea comes as water experts from across the Prairies gather for a two-day water symposium sponsored by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Well water at 42 sites around rural Manitoba is currently unfit for drinking, according to Manitoba Conservation. A provincewide survey in 2000 found almost half the wells in the province were tainted with bacteria that can make people sick to their stomachs or nitrates that stop babies from absorbing enough oxygen. Environmental researcher Glen Koroluk questions why a follow-up study has not been done to see whether the situation has got any better -- or worse. Don Rocan, manager of Manitoba's drinking water office, said only a few of the areas where people have been ordered to boil their drinking water have populations of more than 500. Some are small campsites where the province only recently began testing the water. "I think we're making headway," he said. Rocan said the main sources of contamination are abandoned and poorly maintained wells, which provide a route for bacteria to enter aquifers. In most cases, repairs and disinfection can fix the problem, but where too many old wells have poked holes into an aquifer, towns have to build a water-treatment system, he said. That work has already been done in Balmoral, Ile des Chenes, St. Adolphe and Haywood. Some areas of the province flooded by heavy rains are unusually vulnerable to well contamination this year, Rocan noted. Brandon University biologist Bill Paton believes he has found evidence that seepage from storage ponds for liquid hog manure poses a threat to neighbours' drinking water. The scientist analysed the results of tests on groundwater-monitoring wells around the province provided to Koroluk by the government after a three-year battle. In a compromise negotiated by the provincial ombudsman, the data was released after being stripped of anything that would identify the location of the livestock farms. Paton said more than half of the monitoring wells are so contaminated that they do not meet drinking water quality guidelines. Don Cook, assistant deputy minister of Manitoba Conservation, said the monitoring wells are shallow test holes that provide an early warning of seepage problems, rather than real wells that access the aquifers where people get their drinking water. In many cases, the water in the test holes would not have met Paton's standards even before a hog barn was built on the farm, according to environmental engineer Travis Parsons.

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