Source Water Assessment and Wellhead Protection Program

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TABLE OF CONTENTS
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Ground Water

          The purpose of a well is to drill into the earth to gain access to ground water. Ground water is simply water that flows beneath the earth's surface. Many people mistakenly perceive this to be in large lakes or flowing rivers buried deep underground. This is not what groundwater is (although there can be ground water in these forms in caves, mines, and other natural or man-made subterranean "pockets"). Ground water is actually water that is completely saturated into soil, rock, or other geological formations. This water is in constant motion as it slowly seeps under ground. This can be compared to water in a sponge. If water is pored onto a sponge it will slowly saturate the entire sponge. This is precisely how the ground water works, it saturates the porous materials layer underground (known as the Zone of Saturation). This layer extends downward until it reaches a layer of impervious material that the water cannot penetrate. Here it would absorb into all the cracks and crevices (a process known as deep percolation) but go no farther as the layer is too dense and non-porous to allow saturation. The top of the zone of saturation is known as the water table. The ground materials above this point are not saturated. Surface water slowly infiltrates through this layer (known as the zone of percolation) until it reaches the water table where it becomes ground water.

          Ground water behaves much like surface water in that it flows from high areas to lower areas. As it reaches these lowland areas, it often escapes to become surface water. This can occur in several ways. Natural springs can exist in which the ground water simply breaks through to the surface. It can also leak into streams and rivers. Many streams would become completely dry during periods of drought if it weren't for being constantly fed by the ground water which isn't as easily affected by surface weather conditions. Ground water can also penetrate to the surface to saturate and even flood areas (creating wetlands). Because of this tendency to flow downhill and the fact that water is constantly entering and leaving the ground water, the entire layer of ground water is in constant motion. Due to the fact that this water must move slowly through the rock and porous materials, it takes long periods of time for it to move, often as long as a day just to move a couple inches.


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Why is Ground Water so Important

          Ground water plays a major role in the water cycle. In fact, ground water makes up about 95 percent of the planet' unfrozen fresh water supply. In 1990, West Virginians used an average of 728 million gallons of ground water per day. Although only about 7 percent of this water was actually used for consumption, in most rural areas of the state ground water is the exclusive source of water for domestic use. The other 93 percent of the total (per day) usage is for mining and industry (about 50 percent), livestock water supply, irrigation, etc. It is further estimated that the entire water resource in West Virginia adds up to about 23 trillion gallons of surface water and 90 trillion gallons of groundwater. Ground water is also so important because of its many advantages. A few examples of these advantages would include:

  1. Passage through soil results in filtration of particulate matter, and absorption of organic compounds and some metals on clay materials.
  2. Relatively safe from some types of pollution, especially by airborne contaminants.
  3. Relatively constant temperature and quality.
  4. Supply is less dependent on weather variations, compared to surface water.
  5. Spread of pollution is usually slow.
from "A Plan to Protect the Groundwater Source of"
by W.V. Rural Water Association

Due to its advantages as a water source and its overwhelming abundance, ground water is a very important resource. Many people across the state rely on it for their sole source of fresh, clean water.


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So, What's the Problem?

          Ground water is an excellent water source that requires little purification. People are finally beginning to realize that this resource is in serious danger of becoming contaminated from our activities. Any liquid that finds its way to the ground can eventually enter the ground water supply. For example, if one gallon of oil were to be dumped into the ground water supply, it would contaminate nearly one million gallons of ground water. Although the soil and other materials do naturally purify most of the water as it strains through, some harmful materials are allowed to pass through. Harmful materials may also be introduced directly into the aquifers (porous material layer in which the ground water exists) through contaminated wells, mines, caves, leaking septic tanks, or any other faulty under ground storage tank. (Other sources of contamination). Some of the more prominent potential sources of pollution include:

  • Hazardous waste dumps and landfills. About 500 uncontrolled hazardous waste sites have been identified in West Virginia. Facilities that store, treat or dispose of waste in impoundments or waste piles, or that have spills, may also contaminate ground water.
  • Solid waste, in poorly designed and managed landfill sand illegal dumps. There are at least 15,000 unpermitted open dumps in West Virginia.
  • Underground storage tanks. Slow gasoline leaks can eventually pollute an entire community's water supply. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 400,000 tanks may be leaking throughout the country.
  • Underground injection wells. These wells can range from simple cesspools to high-tech brine disposal wells that may be thousands of feet deep.
  • Septic systems and cesspools. If improperly installed and maintained, contaminants such as bacteria, viruses and nitrates can seep down from the drain field into ground water.
  • Acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines.
  • Fertilizers and pesticides, when overused or improperly discarded.
  • Improperly abandoned wells. Unplugged wells allow pollutants to migrate from the surface or from deeper formation into fresh water aquifers.
  • Used motor oil, poured in backyards, streams, on roads or down storm sewers can pollute ground and surface waters.
  • Household waste products. Paint, varnishes, lawn chemicals, and cleaning solvents poured down sinks or disposed of with ordinary trash, can end up in landfills and eventually in the ground water.
from "Ground Water Facts for West Virginians" by W.V. DEP
Once ground water becomes contaminated, it is very difficult or even impossible to remove the pollution. Since the water moves so slowly, the pollutant is able to stay very concentrated in higher levels in certain areas, instead of dispersing over the entire area as surface water does. The pollutants could remain in an area, making the water unusable, for a period of several years or more. After a period of time, the contamination in the ground water will spread to the surface water as well, through its natural outlets.


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What can I do to Help?

Despite all the efforts of the Wellhead Protection Program and all of the other governmental agencies involved in ground water protection, little can be done without the help of the public. Nearly all of the causes of pollution of ground water are caused by the actions of individuals and industries. This natural resource could be perfectly preserved if people were only to realize the harmfulness of their actions. Although the government can regulate industry, and prevent them from the most obvious of pollutions, it would be nearly impossible to stop every action that results in harmful effects to the ground water. So, community involvement is the only way to effectively reduce ground water pollution.

There are five basic steps to protecting the ground water supply of a well: (1). Form a team, (2). Define land area, (3). Identify sources, (4). Manage land area, (5). Plan for future. All of these steps demand cooperation and assistance from the affected community. The first step to WHP is to form a team within the community. This group will then work through the rest of steps and be responsible for protecting the water supply and planning what to do in the event of an emergency. It is important that this group have a wide variety of people involved to represent the various interests and groups in the community so that the entire community will become involved. (Suggestions for Potential Members of the team). Once this team has been formed, they must define the exact wellhead protection area ("the surface and subsurface area surrounding a water well or wellfield, supplying a public water system, through which contaminants are reasonably likely to move toward and reach such water well or wellfield"). Once this area has been defined and mapped, the team must properly manage the area and regulate activities that could cause pollution and plan for future methods to eliminate and prevent pollution. An important goal the team should immediately focus on is preparing a written plan describing their intentions, proper actions for contamination emergencies, as well as basic information about the well. (click here for an example of what might go into this plan). To learn more about forming a community wellhead protection team and a detailed description of each of the five steps, click here.

The W.V. WHPP is devoted to aiding communities or other groups in forming their own WHPP for their community wells. Only through the involvement of all those who use the water from the well can this precious natural resource be preserved for future generations. If you would like more information or would like to begin forming your own WHPP, please contact us.


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