As the city slowly thaws into spring, Ottawa Public Health says melting snow, heavy rain, and flooding will increase the risk of well water contamination.
The threat is minimal for most residents, whose water is maintained by the city. But for the 30,000 residences in Ottawa who rely on private wells, spring weather can lead to unsafe drinking water.
For these rural homes, the melting snow increases the risk of surface water leaking into wells. The surface water may contain disease-carrying bacteria, such as E. coli. In 2010, an Ontario health inspector report found that one sixth of the well water tested in Ottawa that year was unsafe for drinking.
The only way to ensure well water is safe is to have it tested, said a report OPH presented to the city’s board of health on Monday.
The OPH recommends that rural residents test their water at least three times a year. And yet, said Donna Casey, an OPH spokesperson, only three per cent of Ottawa well owners follow these guidelines.
“It’s a very small number,” said Casey.
New Program aimed at increasing water testing
To improve testing rates, OPH has teamed up with local businesses to start a new testing program. The initiative is formally called the Residential Well Water Testing Program. It is designed to make it easier for rural residents to test water samples.
In the current system, there are only seven locations that accept samples year-round.
These locations, such as the Ontario Public Health Laboratory on St. Laurent Boulevard, can be difficult to reach for rural residents, said Casey. They also have limited business hours.
The new system will allow rural residents to drop off their samples throughout the year at 16 rural businesses. This more than doubles the number of locations that accept drop-offs, and prevents residents from having to travel into central Ottawa.
On Monday, the Ottawa Board of Health unanimously approved the new plans.
Knoxville-Merrivale Coun. Keith Egli said the decision was positive. Egli’s ward contains communities such as Pineglen, where almost all the homes use well water.
“The amalgamated city is quite large and we wanted to give people as much flexibility as possible so that they could get tested reliably and in a timely fashion,” said Egli.
Now that the plans have been approved, OPH aims to have the new drop-off locations accepting samples by April, said Casey.
The changes are important in communities such as Kinburn, said Mindy Bal, who works at Darvesh Gas, Grocery, LCBO and Beer Store. Darvesh is one of the stores participating in the program.
Kinburn has about 1600 residents, according to the Ottawa Neighbourhood survey. And, said Bal, “Everybody has well water here.”
The situation is similar in the community of Dunrobin, said Cindy Delahunt, the co-owner of Dunrobin Meat and Grocery. She said that the old system didn’t work for many residents.
“It is inconvenient for out here,” said Delahunt.
The new system will allow residents to drop off their water at the same time they do their weekly grocery shop, said Bal. And the businesses’ longer hours will be provide flexibility for well-owners who have jobs but still want to get their water tested.
And it all comes at no extra cost to the businesses, residents, or city. The budget from the old program will simply be transferred to cover the new one, said Casey.
“I think it’s good all around,” said Delahunt.
When this year’s persistent winter finally ends, said Casey, she hopes that the new program will be in place to ensure that everybody in the city has access to clean water.
“Regardless of whether you’re living in a rural or urban area, safe drinking water should be something that’s available to all residents,” she said.
Ottawa Public Health Spokesperson Donna Casey speaks about the new well water testing program:
Mindy Bal from Darvesh Gas, Grocery, LCBO and Beer Store in Kinburn speaks about the well water testing program:
Cindy Delahunt from Dunrobin Meat and Grocery in Dunrobin speaks about the well water testing program: