Groundwater Threats

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

With a healthy snowpack on the ground, it might seem like an unusual time to worry about protection of our surface watersheds and groundwater recharge areas.  Many threats to our water supplies are associated with the warmer weather. Lawn and agricultural chemical applications, sedimentation from excavation or construction, or illegal dumping occur most frequently in spring, summer or fall. Some threats, though, are with us year round and can be even worse in the winter. That uniquely winter pollutant, road salt, can also be a problem when applications are too heavy, runoff happens too quickly or water sources are close to the treated roadways.

The movement of water into and below the water table is complicated, depending on rock and soil and proximity to creeks and rivers. Given that it sometimes moves very slowly and can take a long time to clean itself up, contamination can show up in groundwater long after it was originally polluted.
Wells polluted by malfunctioning on-lot septic systems will continue to have bacterial pollution so long as the system is not working properly. This happens year round, too. Frequently, household wells are polluted by their own septic systems.

Things dumped on the ground - trash, automotive fluids and other hazardous chemicals - can be serious sources of water pollution and can be a problem long after they are dumped. They move slowly into water supplies, sometimes many months after they were dumped on the ground.
The illegal dump study done by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful accounted for 116 dumps in Blair County. With increased attention given to our dump problems, we would hope that we might see a decrease in dumping. Yet a new illegal dump along the Little Juniata River would indicate that some just don’t hear those messages.

An even longer term problem that contributes pollutants to our water is mine drainage. Much reclamation work has taken place over the last fifteen years, improving many miles of stream in Blair and Cambria County. Yet the undrinkable and unusable acid mine water so common at the western edge of Blair County continues to flow, in both the winter and summer, many decades after it was first fouled by poor mining practices.

Concerns over gas drilling in Marcellus Shale have arisen in the same regions that have been cursed by coal mining problems. (The Appalachian Plateau contains both coal and Marcellus Shale.) Given Pennsylvania’s legacy of figuring out there’s a problem after the damage is done, many in the Plateau region are haunted by the prospects of groundwater contamination that we might not yet fully understand.

Some of these problems are beyond our control as individuals, but there are some that we can help prevent.
• Use less salt to treat your paved surfaces and encourage your employer or snow removal service to use only what is needed.
• Have your septic system tank emptied every few years to prevent it from malfunctioning.
• Recycle or properly dispose of all trash and hazardous materials.
• Report illegal dumping to your municipal officials.
• Let your municipal officials know that convenient and affordable waste and recycling services significantly reduces burning and improper disposal of trash.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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