Water: Life's Crucial Element

By Susan Gallagher
The Times News, © 2000

January 28, 2000

(Editor’s Note: The following is the first of four articles that will run periodically this year on local groundwater issues. The articles are written by Susan Gallagher, chief naturalist at the Carbon County Environmental Education Center.) Take a look at a spotlight-300x195glass of water. Any glass will do. the clear, colorless liquid you see is nature at her finest, an elegantly simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The atoms combine, two hydrogen for each oxygen, to form water molecules.

Under the right conditions, these molecules can swirl up into steam, freeze into flakes, or condense into clouds. Steam can power a locomotive, flakes of snow can cripple our transportation systems, and clouds can bless a drought stricken farmer, or curse a flood-ravaged community.

Not only do these molecules have the ability to affect our lives on a daily basis, they also command authority over life itself. Think about our most basic requirements: food, shelter and water. Go without water for a few days, and your body will suffer the effects of dehydration. Without water, it becomes impossible to grow crops for food, or provide our cattle, chickens and pigs with a drink. Without water, there are no trees for lumber, no concrete, no drywall, therefore no shelter. Water is the crucial ingredient in all earthly life.

Our precious water molecules cycle constantly through the environment by evaporation, condensation and precipitation. We see this all around us in rain, fog and clouds. But many of our major water reserves lie unseen, below the ground.

As rainwater and melting snow seep into the soil, much of the water is taken up by plant roots. The remainder is pulled further underground by gravity, and eventually reaches a zone of saturation, where all the tiny pores within the earth below are filled with water. This is groundwater. The great layers of porous rock and sand below us that hold and deliver this usable water are known as aquifers. Anyone who’s ever dug a well was surely introduced to this concept, for it is from the groundwater in aquifers that well water is drawn. This groundwater provides 90 percent of rural America’s drinking water.

Unfortunately, the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” often appropriately describes our sentiments on groundwater resources. Unless a problem of odor, taste or sediments is evident at the tap, we don’t think much about our groundwater. And if we’re not thinking about it, then who is?

The State Department of Environmental Resources monitors groundwater levels at designated test wells, and municipal water supplies are at least tested for bacteria. This leaves the majority of well water-drinking residents (about 2.6 million Pennsylvanians) without standardized testing in place, and without 100 percent reassurance that each glassful of clear, colorless water molecules is safe to drink. When was the last time your well water was tested for anything?

Enter the Groundwater Foundation. Through various projects and publications, this international, non-profit organization educates and motivates others to care for and about groundwater. The Foundation has been honored by the United Nations for its ability to “inspire people to protect a resource that is especially vital.” Not a regulatory agency, the Foundation stresses voluntary community involvement in recognizing problems and solutions specific to local areas.

With so much emphasis on action at the local level, the Foundation has instituted the Groundwater Guardian Program, encouraging communities to increase their own awareness and protection of groundwater resources. Groundwater Guardian Communities are expected to establish a working team of individuals, who will determine and follow through with a list of “result oriented activities.” This is a sort of self help team, allowing an individual community to zero in on its individual needs.

In our area, citizens representing various agencies and localities have united as a non-profit, volunteer Groundwater Guardian Team. The Guardians’ mission is to preserve and improve the groundwater quality of Carbon County. Their primary effort will be in educating county residents to understand the need for groundwater protection. Other Team endeavors will include attempts to establish a countywide recycling program for the many household wastes with the potential to contaminate groundwater supplies, and some offer of private well water testing at a reduced cost.

The group is the brainchild of Towamensing Township resident Frank Waksmunski. “I love a cool glass of water from my well when I’m thirsty. It refreshes me, but also puts a little scare in me,” says Waksmunski. “I had my water tested three years ago, but only for bacteria. I know that three years ago I had no bacteria, but what about today? Could I be drinking a cocktail of bacteria, motor oil, antifreeze, road salt, heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizer, radon, solvents or other organic chemicals? Could you be drinking the same?” asks this retired Merck & Company chemist. “In low but still dangerous levels, especially to young children and older adults, these contaminants would not be seen, smelled or tasted. The answer will remain unknown unless the water is tested.”

Waksmunski was joined in his efforts to launch the group by Jim Thorpe Area High School environmental science teacher LeRoy Skinner. Skinner, who confesses to a lifelong interest in water quality, hopes to involve his science classes in testing groundwater samples from within the community. “I envision the involvement of homeowners throughout Carbon County and all five school districts including the vo-tech school in testing well water across the country,” Says Skinner. “What we are striving for is increased knowledge and understanding of our groundwater quality, and how to protect or improve it. We need the cooperation of everyone in the county and beyond to safeguard our well water.”

Surely one of the most daunting tasks the Guardians will undertake is in gaining a working knowledge of how groundwater moves and is stored underneath our local communities. How much groundwater we have, and how much we can use depends very much on what kinds of rocks lie below. To visualize the state of our groundwater, we must first delve into Pennsylvania’s checkered geological past.

Over millions of years, our area’s rocks have been repeatedly covered by water, glaciers and changed by glacial climates. They have been heavily faulted and fractured, heaved up from below and eroded from above. They have been heated and cooled, kneaded and folded like dough in an adept baker’s hands. More recently, we have extracted valuable resources from below ground, profoundly changing not only the lay of the land, but the quality, quantity and movement of our groundwater as well. All this leads to difficulty in making generalizations about our groundwater supplies, but there are a few broad concepts we can consider.

Sandstones, shales and limestone form the bulk of Carbon County’s geologic formations. While aquifers found in such rock yield varying amounts of potable water, sandstone aquifers are generally more productive. Eastern Carbon County is heavily underlain by Pocono sandstone, which can yield large amounts of high quality water.

The Catskill sandstone of northern Carbon County, covered by ice during the last glaciation, provides plentiful water of high quality, most of which has yet to be tapped. Rock formations in southern Carbon County generally surrender dependable supplies of water from shallow wells, and considerable amounts from further below. Wells in this area that tap into shale and limestone beds however, may yield water high in natural minerals or acids, leading to problems with hardness and corrosiveness, respectively.

Central areas of the county are peppered with artesian aquifers. Here, groundwater is held under pressure, confined by less porous layers of surrounding rock. Artesian wells tap into this pressurized water, which is then naturally “pumped” upward.

Our local geology does lend itself well to an abundant supply of potable groundwater. The only problem is, as with any plentiful resource, we may tend to take our groundwater for granted.

The Guardians hope to prevent that, and to compel us all to take a good long look at each glass of water, seeing it for what it really is: an elegantly simple, clear, colorless combination of atoms, the crucial ingredient in all earthly life. The Carbon County Groundwater Guardians welcome members and input from throughout the county. Meetings are held on the first Monday of each month, 6 p.m. at the Carbon County Emergency Management Office in Nesquehoning.

The author, Chief Naturalist at Carbon County Environmental Education Center, welcomes any and all feedback on this article at (570) 645-8597, or through e-mail at myotis3l@yahoo corn.

This is the first in a series of articles that hopes to continue.