Drilling and drinking advice from East Coast experts
In the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) checks in to see what kind of progress the well-digger is making.
“How far down are you?” Blandings asks.
“Oh, about 130 feet,” replies Mr. Casander, the well-digger.
Blandings wonders if he’s had any sign of water at all. “Hit some limestone yesterday,” Casander says, before adding that he’s “coming into some shale. Of course, it might turn out to be sandstone.”
Meanwhile, across the property, water is so close to the surface the house’s foundation is flooding.
Wells are complicated, and sometimes unpredictable. But a lot of us rely on them. About 50 per cent of P.E.I. residents get their water from residential wells. The figure for Nova Scotia is only slightly lower, and on the island of Newfoundland, it’s about 30 per cent. New Brunswick has 100,000 private wells. And since there is no municipal water system sampling the water, well owners need to get it tested themselves.
“You can have arsenic, uranium, bacteria, nitrates — you run into it all the time on P.E.I.,” says Eustace Reeves, whose company, Reeves Water Treatment Systems has been in business since 1977.
There is no simple answer for what kind of well is best, says recently retired professional engineer Dan Moscovitch, who has consulted for homeowners with both dug and drilled wells. (Note: Moscovitch is the brother of this article’s writer.)
With an increase in hotter, drier weather and drought conditions, dug wells may run low or dry. And they are at risk for bacterial contamination. Digging a well also requires paying close attention to siting, since it can’t be too close to a septic tank or field.
But drilled wells have their issues too: “Inherently, water in drilled wells tends to have higher mineralization,” says Moscovitch. “Some of those minerals are health hazards, like uranium and arsenic, and some of them are not health hazards, but they’re quite unpleasant, like iron that stains plumbing fixtures or laundry.” Moscovitch estimates that on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, where he lives, more than three quarters of drilled wells require some kind of water treatment.
Any water problem can be fixed, but some solutions are more complicated than others. “I can fix horse piss if you want, but it would be expensive,” Reeves says.
Moscovitch says one of the easiest things to deal with is sand, “which is not releasing any harmful chemicals but plugging up aerators in sinks and so on; that simply involves installing a sediment strainer in the water supply line to the house.” At the other end of the spectrum is saltwater intrusion combined with other minerals — a concern for drilled wells near the coast. He says, “I had a client drill a well 100 feet from the ocean, but they got saltwater intrusion and hit a gypsum deposit. The water treatment firms who were consulted both came back and said you’d be better off trying to desalinate ocean water than trying to treat this well.”
The saltwater issue is one Heather Hudson knows all too well. A teacher living in northern Quebec, Hudson plans to return to Nova Scotia with her family and hopes to buy her father’s rural property. But the drilled well now has so much salt that it’s corroding the pipes. “My dad has a filtration system, but it’s not meant to deal with salt,” she says. Remediation would be very expensive, so she has to decide whether to drill a new well, dig a well, or go a different route and build a cistern to hold water.
Asked which way she was leaning as she researched options, Hudson says, “It depends on which day you speak to us… If it’s a dug well, there’s a higher chance it will go dry and you’ll need a cistern anyway, but there is also the possibility if you drill that you will hit saltwater anyway, so there’s no guarantee. That’s the challenge of it all. It’s a big-money gamble.”
While water testing has been widely available for decades, there seems to be an increased awareness of the importance of water quality. “The younger generation tend to watch things like that a lot closer,” says Mike Mazerolle, owner-operator of RCR Premium Water Systems in Shediac, N.B. “Young families having kids, a lot of them have more disposable income, and they want to spend the money to fix their water.”
Mazerolle said the most common issue he sees by far is hard water — water with minerals that may affect smell and taste or cause staining. If you have the option, Mazerolle, who has been in the business 10 years, says it’s generally more cost-effective to treat water than dig a new well. “Drilling is like Russian roulette. You might get better water, you might get the same, you might get worse. In general, it’s cheaper to treat than to drill.” But if a well has poor water and poor flow or saltwater, he says a new well may be the way to go.
Because they draw water from closer to the surface, bacterial contamination can be a problem with dug wells. Sometimes, the source is obvious. Moscovitch recalls being hired to examine a well on a property where “the previous owner had fenced off an area with a well in the middle as a dog pen, and there was dog poop inches deep over most of it.”
But not all sources of contamination are that clear. Mosses growing on the inside of a well crock when water is low, or animals that have made homes under well covers and later drowned or released droppings can introduce pathogens. Last summer, Mazerolle saw several wells with bacteria caused by an infestation of earwigs under the well cap: “You’d lift up the cover and see hundreds and hundreds of earwigs.”
Unfortunately, many people don’t find out there’s a problem with their water until they try and sell their house, says longtime real estate agent Monica Sontrop, with Engel & Völkers. “Twenty-five years ago, a lot of people had never done a mineral test or checked for bacteria,” she says. That’s changing, though. Sontrop says it’s much more common now for sellers to test before putting their house on the market. “Water is quite a big deal for rural properties,” she says. “If a seller does a mineral test, and if they do find out there’s something like arsenic or uranium, we recommend it be rectified before they put it on the market. If I’m working with a buyer, 99 per cent will do a water test before they buy a property, and if you run into a problem then that has to be negotiated.”
P.E.I. recently made domestic water testing free, as a way to encourage regular testing. George Somers, manager of drinking water and waste management in P.E.I.’s Department of Environment, Energy, and Climate Action, says the province wants to “remove as many barriers as we can.” He says residents can access two free bacteria tests a year, and a chemistry (mineral) test every two years, although, he notes, “The chemistry doesn’t change that much.”
Because so many Atlantic Canadians draw water from wells, provincial governments have oodles of online resources on the subject. There are maps showing the prevalence of common contaminants, guides to digging and drilling wells and treating water, animations showing groundwater levels over time — even databases where you can see logs listing information on thousands of wells.
But no matter how much information you have, there are still no guarantees. As Reeves says, “You could be 100 feet from me and have very different water. It all depends on the aquifer.”
Common natural mineral contaminants
“Natural” doesn’t always mean “good.” Wells in Atlantic Canada may be contaminated with naturally occurring minerals that are bad for human health. These are some of the most common ones.
Linked to kidney and bladder cancer.
Accumulation can damage the kidneys.
Harmful neurological effects for young children. The federal government recently lowered acceptable manganese levels.
Dug x Drilled
Drilled wells draw water from fissures in bedrock aquifers. The upper part of the well is lined with an impermeable casing to prevent surface and sub-surface water from entering the shaft.
Dug wells are shallower, drawing from the groundwater table. Older dug wells consist of a hole surrounded by either rock or concrete casing. Newer wells have concrete casings and a reservoir filled with weathered rock around the well.