Groundwater Protection

NGWA Groundwater Awareness Week – 20th Anniversary!

March 10-16, 2019

If you live in Southern Idaho, you may not know that you’re driving around on an ocean. It’s true – billions of gallons of water are flowing through the broken rocks and soil beneath your feet. It’s called the Snake River Plains Aquifer – and it supplies most of the water for Southern Idaho.

One of the goals of National Groundwater Awareness week is simply to help you become aware of the underground water. We all rely on groundwater – the City of Twin Falls alone draws fresh water from 10 wells in the Snake River Aquifer, and many of our local farms and dairies rely on irrigation wells. If you live in the country, chances are your water comes from a small domestic water well. You may have hired the driller yourself, or you may have bought the well included with the home, or you may have even called a pump technician if the water system stopped working. If you have your own well, it’s a good idea to get it tested every year for bacteria and nitrates. The samples don’t cost a lot of money, and they can tell you a lot about the quality of the water in your well. Plus, if you have a history of clean water samples, then all of a sudden they start coming back dirty, you can start looking at the things around you that might be affecting your well.

That’s right – just because you have a well doesn’t mean the water is automatically clean. If you’re curious about water quality and what kinds of stuff can get into your water, you can check out the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality’s webpage on water quality, the National Groundwater Association’s pages, or even – a website for folks who own their own domestic well. Or you can take a look at our page on water quality.

If you live in town – especially Twin Falls, or Burley, or Filer, or any of the others that provide city water, you might be thinking that groundwater awareness doesn’t apply to you. Actually, all towns in Southern Idaho rely on wells and groundwater from the Snake River Plains aquifer to provide water for you to drink, water your lawn, wash your clothes, make dinner, take showers, and other day-to-day tasks. In other words, the quality of the underground aquifer affects you, whether you live in the city or out in the country. If you live in the Wood River Valley, you aren’t pulling from the same aquifer – but your groundwater can still be affected by things you do on the surface.

How Does Groundwater Affect Me?

If you live in Southern Idaho, the condition of the aquifer is pretty important to you. For example, there are places in Twin Falls that have a higher levels of arsenic in the water – which is something that can cause health issues in sensitive people. There are also places where nitrate levels are slightly elevated and can also cause health issues.

For information on allowed levels of different chemicals, here’s a link to the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water contaminants page. It will also tell you potential health risks for different substances. Typically, in Southern Idaho we test for Nitrate, Bacteria, Lead/Copper, and sometimes Arsenic. But if you want to be safe and have us test your water, or if you just want to ask questions about your water quality, give us a call.

What Can I Do To Keep Groundwater Clean?

The first thing to keep in mind about groundwater is that it comes from the surface. Some of it comes from Idaho’s Lost Rivers, some of it comes from melting snow in the mountains. And some of it soaks down into the ground from irrigation, rain, or even from watering your lawn. If you think about it for a minute, you might realize that when the water soaks down into the aquifer, it might wash other stuff down with it – the same way that hot water can wash bacon grease down the drain. But just like bacon grease is bad for your plumbing, some stuff can be bad for the aquifer.

For example, it’s a bad idea to dump antifreeze and motor oil out onto the ground. It might seem like dumping it in the back alley is a free,”out of sight, out of mind” solution. But those chemicals can leach down into the water and affect your neighbor’s well. Would you want your neighbor dumping stuff that could get into your water? Our guess is probably not – so be a good neighbor and dispose of those chemicals properly.

If you have a well, make sure it’s got a good seal to protect the groundwater. You’ll want to check the top cover and make sure the bolts are tight, and that the rubber gasket isn’t bulging or missing. It should also extend a foot above ground. (We can come do a well inspection for you if you’re concerned.) Even if your wellhead stands a foot above ground and has a good seal, it’s still best to avoid letting water pool around the casing. And please, don’t build a cat litterbox or any kind of animal cage around the wellhead.

We mentioned before that it’s a good idea to get water samples each year. We’re not lawyers, so please don’t take this as legal advice. But let’s say you’re getting your well water tested for nitrates and bacteria each year, and it comes up clean for ten years. You know your water is probably in pretty good shape. Then, say a dairy moves in a mile down the road from your house. Suddenly, the next year your nitrate samples are showing an increase. Having a history of clean water might be pretty useful in situations like this.

How Much Groundwater Is There?

Geologists estimate the amount amount of water in the Snake River Aquifer to be in the billions of gallons. But if you’ve been reading the news lately, you might’ve seen some controversy over “water rights,” “water calls,” and maybe even some people’s wells going dry.

The truth is that the aquifer used to get a lot of recharge from irrigation. But that was back in the days when farmers dipped a curved siphon pipe into a ditch and let the water run through furrows. Now, with modern sprinkler technology, farmers can irrigate crops with a lot less water. It’s a pretty good deal for the farmer because he uses less water, but it means less water soaking down into the aquifer. Not only that, for the past several years we haven’t had quite the rain and snowfall that we’d hoped for. And that means even less water going down to recharge the aquifer.

As Idahoans, we all rely on groundwater. And some of us need more than others. But to be a good neighbor, it’s important to remember that other folks need some of that water too. Normally if you have a domestic well, you have a domestic water right that lets you water 1/2 acre up to 13,000 gallons per day. In the past, regulators (Idaho Department of Water Resources, or Division of Environmental Quality) have looked the other way if you happen to use more than your share. But with the water reserves dwindling, more people – and businesses – are feeling the pressure. When there isn’t enough water, it might mean your lawn dies off, or it might mean cows going thirsty. (If you’ve never heard thirsty cows, they make a lot of noise.)

What we’re saying, is that you should be aware that other people need to use the groundwater too. It might be your neighbor this year, and they’d appreciate you easing up and only using as much water as you need. Next year it might be you needing the water, and you’d appreciate your neighbor easing up on their water usage.

If you’re curious about water rights – what they are, what they entitle you to use, and how they’re adjudicated if there’s not enough for everyone, you can visit IDWR’s water rights page. You’re also welcome to call us for advice.

Dry Wells

We’ve talked about dry wells and how you can confirm or refurbish one. But we just wanted to mention a couple important points. The first is that, although we haven’t seen as many dry well sin 2015 as we did in 2014, we are still in a drought. That means we should still be careful with our water use. The second thing is that we’ve had several customers call us wanting to deepen or replace their existing well.

We used to take wells deeper, but we’ve found that it costs just as much (and often more) to deepen an existing well than it does to simply drill a new one. One of the reasons is that there are some drillers in the area who don’t drill straight – they’ll corkscrew the drill bit down, or they’ll drill crooked wells. Another reason is that we don’t know what’s happened to the well since it was drilled – it might have had mud or rocks wash in that would make drilling difficult. Lastly, even if we do take your well deeper, at the end you’ve spent a whole lot of money on an old well.

If you think you have a well going dry, check out the dry well page and see if it gives you some ideas. Or give us a call – we can give you an estimate of what it’ll take get you a functioning well again.