Contaminants and the Water Table
What is a water table, and why should you care about it? That’s a reasonable question. The science behind how water gets from the sky to your faucet is more complicated than “rain falls into a reservoir and then we drink it.”
What is a water table?
Water tables are one of the several ways that water makes it into our supply. When rain falls, it soaks into the ground, eventually meeting up with the groundwater. The water table is that layer of soil between the surface and the zone saturated with water, also known as an aquifer.
When we need water to drink, wash, or anything else, we drill through the table and into the aquifer. Before technology improved, this just meant digging a well deep enough that it started filling with water. To get it out, you’d lower a bucket on a rope.
We still use wells today, but now they aren’t just big holes in the ground. We install systems of pipes and pumps to draw out the water. You can even do it mechanically to get the water into the public water supply.
What’s in your water?
If your drinking water is soaking through the soil first, that, unfortunately, means it’s going to soak up whatever is in the ground. Sometimes, it might just be minerals, but it can be much worse.
We’ve outlined some of the biggest potential contamination risks, what can go wrong, and what those pollutants might contain. If you better understand what’s in your water, you can better understand how to avoid the potential hazards.
Storage tanks can cover a large variety of pollutants. It can be gasoline, crude oil, or even some harmful chemicals. The people who make these tanks go through a lot to make sure that they are airtight, but structures and safety precautions can fail.
If oil spills into a body of water, it can kill all of the animals very quickly. Just imagine that in your drinking water. Luckily, a storage tank breaking and contaminants spilling into the water is pretty easy to spot. What’s not so easy to spot are small leaks.
Septic takes hold sewage from a plumbing system. The waste does not meet up with the public sewage system but, instead, gets stored on site. The purpose of these tanks is to slowly leak out sewage over time. A little bit of waste getting into the ground, or even into the water supply, is not an issue. If you put a drop of food coloring in a gallon of water, you’re not really going to see a change of color.
When these tanks fail, that’s when it becomes an issue. If a septic system releases waste too quickly or breaks open entirely, all of the bacteria is set loose into the water supply.
When you think of hazardous waste, you probably think of big metal barrels with glowing slime. In reality, they aren’t that ominous. In fact, we don’t actually know how many abandoned waste sites we have in the US, and, often times, they’re indistinguishable from normal trash.
The glowing slime archetype is usually based on nuclear hazardous waste. While they don’t actually glow, radioactive materials are generally stored in barrels at designated sites. Luckily, these are usually heavily regulated.
Medical waste is the bigger risk to your water supply. All sorts of diseases and chemicals can leach through the soil and into the aquifers.
Fertilizers and Pesticides
When you spray your garden with round-up or lay fertilizer on your lawn, it will eventually get washed away or absorbed into the ground. Every chemical you put on your plants could potentially end up in the water supply.
The same thing happens with our food supply. When farmers coat their crops with pesticides, those chemicals end up in our drinking water.
Acid rain mostly comes from the burning of fossil fuels. When too much sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide gets into the air, rain can become acidic. Acid rain itself isn’t harmful to humans. It won’t burn your skin. It can erode paint and plant life, but it occurs over long periods of time.
What is dangerous is when the rain gets absorbed into the water table. The aquifers get contaminated with the chemicals that cause the acidity and can then cause damage to your health.