Chapter 15 – Water

The quality of the water, after all, is the quality of us.
John Todd 

Earth’s water system is a perfect design. No new water is being made—it is simply recycled. The water we drink today may have been drunk by Confucius 2,500 years ago. Too bad wisdom is not transmitted so easily.

When we open the tap and water comes out, we take it for granted. When it tastes good, we trust it. When it looks clear, we fear it not. All of these reactions are dangerous. The quantity and the quality of our water are no longer dependable—especially in and near cities.

Water quantity

Water is the most valuable and indispensable resource of any land. Abundant healthful water is a prime ingredient of the ideal life. Each of us each day needs minimally about 75 gallons for drinking, cooking, bathing and cleaning. Irrigation of garden and landscape can increase water requirements enormously. A stream, pond, or cistern is an excellent source of irrigation water, which need not be free of bacteria. Unless situated above point of use, such a system will require a pump and pressure tank. All piping must be separate from the household system to avoid cross contamination.

Almost two percent of the total area of the U.S. is covered with water. The country averages 29 inches annual precipitation (based on a 77-year record) but excepting the coastal area of the Pacific Northwest, the western half of the country is generally dry and the eastern half is generally wet. Many western states are using groundwater faster than it is being replenished and face serious regional water shortages. In 1980 five western states—California, Texas, Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska—accounted for nearly 55 percent of the total volume of ground-water used in the U.S. In these and other western states the groundwater levels are sinking. State of the World 1996 reports that net depletion of the Plains aquifer system totals some 325 billion cubic meters, roughly 15 times the average annual flow of the Colorado River. Irrigated acreage dropped 26 percent between 1979 and 1989 in the Texas High Plains. In the central and eastern states, groundwater levels are still at about the same levels as they were in the early part of the century.

A modern insanity is that the largest consumer of energy in California is the system of pumps that move water. Thousands of miles of aqueducts traverse the state, requiring continual pumping. The California broccoli consumed in Cincinnati is a product of both water and oil.

The groundwater map shows major U.S. aquifers, defined as capable of yielding 50 gallons per minute or more to wells. Depths to water vary, of course. In addition to areas indicated, wells along river basins generally are recharged by the river water migrating outward. While drawing this map I consulted two different maps published by the U.S. Geological Survey—each showed the same general patterns but indicated substantially different specific boundaries. Therefore I suggest that you use this map only as an indicator of general groundwater distribution. Seek the advice of a local well driller regarding aquifers in your chosen area.

Rainfall and groundwater distribution do not always correlate, as can be seen by comparing the precipitation map in chapter 9—Climate with the groundwater map here. In fact, the rainiest part of the country, along the Oregon and Washington coastline, shows relatively little groundwater.

Living where naturally occurring water is inadequate for the population is living in direct conflict with the laws of nature. In truth there is no shortage of water—there are simply places with a surplus of people. As Henry Miller noted: “The world is not to be put in order, the world is order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.”

Effective precipitation and effective moisture

Total annual precipitation alone is an insufficient measure of moisture available at the earth’s surface as it does not take into account the manner in which it is distributed throughout the year. In many areas agricultural activities are geared to precipitation patterns, any deviation from which may result in reduced or failed crops.

The significance of seasonal distribution relates to the concept of precipitation or moisture effectiveness. A considerable amount of moisture is returned to the atmosphere by evaporation and transpiration, as depicted in the drawing of the hydrologic cycle. These two factors are directly influenced by the temperature at which precipitation occurs. When precipitation occurs as snow, no moisture is available until spring melt, which may result in excessive runoff and loss of water.

Effective moisture is that portion of total precipitation that becomes available for plant growth. Effective moisture is determined by calculating the potential evapotranspiration, the amount of water that could be evaporated and transpired under conditions of optimal soil moisture and the normal amount of heat energy sent down by the sun. Various formulas have been devised to calculate effective moisture. Fortunately, there are people who just love to measure and calculate such things so you and I can simply look at the map and say, aha!, there’s the place to grow things—like vegetables and hay and trees and stuff—that won’t require constant irrigation. Or, aha!, there’s the place to be for summer fun without rain showers to wilt my hairdo. If having a bad hair day is a disaster for you, studying this map, the precipitation map and the humidity map will help you find your best potential area and save you needless suffering.

By looking at the seasonal variation map we can see where adequate moisture is almost always available, where there are summer shortages and where there is often inadequate moisture. One could quite easily predict from this map where the most and least amount of vegetation occurs. The moist eastern half of the country, for instance, is much more heavily wooded than the west, with the notable exception of parts of the Northwest, especially west of the Cascade Range.

As shown in the illustration, the hydrologic cycle is elegant: water primarily evaporates from the surface of the oceans, seas, and lakes, is lifted by warm air, is moved by winds, collides with cooler air, condenses out of the sky and precipitates according to gravity. Whether precipitation is rain, snow, sleet or hail depends on temperature and air movement. Some water soaks into the ground, some evaporates or transpires and the rest flows to the ocean to repeat the cycle.

The ideal home place includes an abundant supply of naturally-occurring healthful water. There are still areas where groundwater is pure and surface water allows swimming and fishing with no danger to health. While many places have insufficient natural water to maintain life, many other areas have a great excess, making them a superior choice for a home place. There are filter and treatment systems that allow you to purify polluted water, but except for a property that is outstanding in every way but water quality, they are an unnecessary expense and maintenance item.

Country home water is most often supplied by a well with electric pump and pressure tank system. Less frequently the source is a spring. In the most fortunate cases the spring is at a higher elevation than the house and water flows into the house by gravity. Such an idyllic system is most appreciated during electrical outages and when paying the electric bill. A stream with adequate flow and drop can power a ram pump, which uses no electricity and can lift water to a storage container on a hill. Voilá, a gravity system! Ram pumps are available from companies listed under Alternative Technology in Appendix A. If rainfall is adequate, consider the possibility of using a cistern. The money saved by not drilling a well will be many times what a purification system will cost.

Water shortage areasMan is a complex being:
he makes deserts bloom—and lakes die.
Gil Stern 

Americans use one-third of all the flowing water in the country every single day. The Mississippi is losing flow; the Colorado is being depleted yearly and no longer carries water the full length of its channel. One of Earth’s miracles, the Ogallala aquifer holds as much water as Lake Huron plus one-fifth of Lake Ontario. The level of the Ogallala, the irrigation source for the huge grain belt from South Dakota to Texas, is sinking rapidly—the water that now creates life in 20 percent of all irrigated cropland in the country may run dry in as little as 40 years. Some predict that the eight-state region it underlies will eventually have to make do with rain only. In a mere 100 years we will have emptied what was once the largest underground body of fresh water in the world. If you have flown over the area, those little green circles you see from 35,000 feet are 80-acre crop plots with center-pivot irrigation systems pumping from the Ogallala. Circles of fortune, they’re called.

California’s most recent drought, which ended in 1993, lasted seven years. Prior documented droughts since the 1400s have lasted 20, 40, and 60 years. Michael Hudlow, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s office of hydrology, has predicted severe U.S. water shortages in the 1990s. University of Colorado professor of natural resource law Charles Wilkinson, author of Crossing the Next Meridian, believes there should be an extraction tax on water. Are you ready for that?

Some say that the water wars of the past are minor compared to the water wars of the future. The West is far overbuilt for its water resources. Major and fast-growing populations live in arid areas of California, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, all of which covet and use the water of the Colorado River. But its flow is a mere two percent of the Mississippi and only five percent of the Connecticut, Delaware, Hudson and Susquehanna rivers combined, which drain about the same size area as the Colorado. “With a deep snowpack in the Colorado Rockies and a spring of heavy rains, 1995 looked to be a year of abundant water in the Colorado River basin. Runoff during the months of April to July was 50 percent greater than normal. Still, the river that carved the Grand Canyon ended up suffering its usual fate: it ran dry before it reached the sea” (State of the World 1996).

Small-acreage landowners in low-rainfall areas are at risk as fast-growing cities go after their water. Las Vegas water officials filed water claims to an aquifer underlying 26 valleys in three rural counties north of the city. A public outcry forced them to reduce their claims. The stated moral defense was that they feared California was going to file claims first. Vegas may get temporary thirst quenching from Utah, which is considering leasing some of its Colorado River water to the gambling oasis. The title of Dennis Cauchon’s article in USA TODAY, 11-17-97 paints a dry picture: “By 2007, Las Vegas will be all tapped out.” Still enormous new casinos and hotels continue to be built. Still the subdivisions spread across the desert. How will the insanity end?

In Last Refuge, Jim Robbins shows how powerful cities take water rights from rural residents: “In 1992, large city utilities from Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and elsewhere formed a Western Urban Water Coalition to lobby for more water for cities and to‘oppose uneconomic and inefficient water uses.’ Which means agriculture. . . . What is taking place, essentially, is a transfer of subsidies. The developers of the sprawling western cities are shouldering out the farmers and taking over the expensive, federally-built dams in the West. And they have managed to convince Congress of the need for more subsidies. A $5 billion [that is not a typo—that’s a b] concrete-lined ditch called the Central Arizona Project, which slices several hundred miles east from the Colorado River through the Sonoran Desert, is a good example. Originally intended for agriculture, the water will now be used by Phoenix and Tucson.”

No part of America so dramatically illustrates the arrogance our species and the insanity of building cities with insufficient water as the West. Phoenix receives about eight inches of rain annually but continues to grow like a blue-spotted cancer across the desert—the blue of thousands of swimming pools. The semiarid Los Angeles area has over 15 million people who depend on water pumped in from the Owens Valley, the Colorado River and from northern California. That’s right—L.A. area residents fill their swimming pools, water their golf courses, wash their cars with water from the northern Sierras.


After WWII the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needed work so it built dams for flood control, electricity generation, and irrigation. The dams created reservoirs of high-quality water. Today, while the original purposes are usually maintained, the Corps has yielded to political pressure and allows fishing, other water sports, and land development around the lakes. Many of these reservoirs are surrounded by beautiful scenery. The combination is irresistible and has created retirement and recreation-oriented communities.

Rapid growth has occurred along lake shores, rivers, and smaller streams feeding into reservoirs. If you consider buying property adjoining a reservoir or feeder stream, find out what restrictions are enforced on permits and construction of homes and dock facilities. In some places no new permits for docks are being issued. Be aware that the Corps controls lake water levels, which causes friction with homeowners and sportsmen whose activities may be adversely affected. Private property lines begin at a federal “take line,” above the high-water mark. Boaters, picnickers, campers, and nude sunbathers can use the federal property up to the take line, which means that these and others can party in the “front yard” of lakeside property owners if they choose.

Water use laws

Riparian rights are the law in those states with adequate rainfall—from Minnesota to Louisiana and east. In these states each landowner may use a reasonable amount of the water on or under owned land but may not appreciably diminish flow to those downstream.

Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico use the Colorado Doctrine of prior appropriation—first in time is first in line. Early settlers were granted the right to extract a certain amount of water; downstream landowners may have no right to use any of the water that flows across their land. If you consider land in these states you must never assume that a spring, stream, or even a river flowing over or adjacent to the land ensures that water is no problem. It often is. Water rights are bought and sold like commodities. The city of Phoenix bought a ranch entitled to 14 percent of the underlying aquifer, now to be pumped to the city.

The remaining western states on both sides of the Colorado Doctrine group use the California Doctrine, a combination of riparian and prior application laws. California farmers with water rights, including rights to take water from the taxpayer-funded canal that moves northern California water to the L.A. area, are allowed by federal law to sell water to municipalities. In the arid and semiarid West, water always flows—to money.

Fire protection

Unless carefully engineered, home water systems rarely have adequate pressure and flow to serve as dependable fire-fighting systems. The best country home fire protection system is careful construction of safe electrical and heating designs, constant vigilance, smoke detectors, a number of appropriate fire extinguishers placed in strategic locations, and a substantial cleared area around buildings.

Using water wisely

Few water systems are without cost to operate, maintain, and purify. Even if a water supply is unlimited and pure, it makes sense not to waste water because it takes energy to deliver it to the tap, and energy usually comes from fossil fuels, the burning of which contributes to the destruction of our environment. The only system I know which costs nearly nothing to operate is a gravity flow system, and, since gravity-flow water usually means a high spring or water lifted by ram pump from a surface stream to a high point, most such systems require treatment to ensure safety.

The EPA estimates that 37 percent of household water is used to flush toilets. A good way to save water plus the cost, maintenance, and potential problems of a septic system is to use a composting toilet. There are many models presently available. See Alternative Technology in Appendix A.

Garden irrigation uses huge amounts of water. Water is conserved, weeds are diminished, and plants are fed by applying a thick layer of organic mulch around plants, shrubs, and trees.

Raise the cutting deck on your lawn mower. Lawns that are cut higher do not dry out so fast. Mowing at regular intervals thickens the grass stand, causing rain water to be absorbed that might otherwise run downhill. Such a program also diminishes erosion and helps to maintain the water table.

Water quantity guidelines

  • Water abundance usually corresponds with area rainfall and snowfall.
  • Wells should be tested for quantity as well as quality. Minimum recharge rates can be tested by continuous pumping during dry periods.
  • Small streams may not flow year-round. Talk to area residents about stream history. If stream flow is critical to your needs, observe it at the driest time of the year and talk to those who have lived there for many years.
  • If a water source is on the land of another, determine that your property has a deeded easement or right-of-way for piping, canal, etc., to deliver the water.
  • Never buy a property lacking a reliable year-round supply of good-quality water.

Water quality

When water seeps through overlying material to the water table, particles in suspension, including microorganisms, may be removed. How much is removed depends on the thickness and character of the overlying material. Clay, or “hardpan,” provides the most effective natural filter for groundwater. Silt and sand also provide good filtration if fine enough and in thick enough layers. The bacterial quality of water improves during storage in an aquifer because conditions there are usually unfavorable for bacteria. Clarity alone does not guarantee that groundwater is safe to drink; this can only be determined by laboratory testing.

The most prudent position is that all water sources are assumed to be contaminated until proven otherwise. As a general rule, all household water should be tested before use and again at regular intervals. If the plumbing in your home has been unused for a period, open all faucets and let the system thoroughly flush before using the water.

Good water is essential for high-quality life. It is necessary to become aware of the condition of water in the various areas you consider. The following unpleasant information is included to alert you to potential problems and areas to avoid. Should you wish more information, a resource list follows. The really ugly information has been limited to Chapter 28—Toxic pollution.

Almost all human activities threaten water purity. For decades, manufacturers and agribusiness operators have sent criminal amounts of poisons into our waters. In 1969 the heavy oil layer on the Cuyahoga river in Cleveland caught fire and blazed out of control, horrifying the nation. A federal report declared:

The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even lower forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on waste.

Partly as a result of the public outcry following the Cuyahoga fire, Congress created the Clean Water Act in 1972. Yet, in 1991, according to EPA reports, industrial, municipal, and military facilities knowingly discharged over 243 million pounds of toxic substances into surface waters. An additional 411 million pounds of toxins were transferred to treatment plants, which in turn transferred partially treated sewage to surface waters. And then we and our children went swimming and fishing in those waters.

Twenty-one years after the Clean Water Act was passed, the EPA listed 18,770 impaired water sites, only 529 polluted primarily by toxic point sources; most of the rest are polluted by runoff (Michael Parfit, “Troubled Waters Run Deep,” National Geographic Special Edition Water 1993). Forty-four of the states report groundwater contamination caused by farm and ranch runoff containing sediments, pesticides, herbicides, and fecal matter.

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group reported that traces of herbicides used to control weeds on corn and soybeans have been found in tap water in the Midwest, the Chesapeake Bay region, and Louisiana. Fourteen million people, including 65,000 infants, drink the tainted water (U.S.News & World Report, October 31, 1994).

In 1993, runoff from livestock areas carried a parasite called Cryptosporidium to the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, municipal water system. A hundred who suffered immune-system deficiency were killed and thousands more became ill.

Municipal water supplies often arrive from far away, affected by conditions foreign to users. A 233-mile-long aqueduct from Owens Valley helps slake L.A.’s huge thirst. New Yorkers have been advised that people with low salt tolerances shouldn’t drink too much city water—the rock salt used in the Catskill Mountains to keep roads ice-free is filling city reservoirs in the area. The average American city dweller drinks water that has been filtered, chemically treated to kill bacteria, then delivered to the tap through a vast network of old pipes constructed of various materials. The EPA reported that of the nation’s 660 large public water systems, 130—which provide drinking water for 32 million people—exceeded the “action level” for lead content.

In The Truth About Where You Live, Benjamin A. Goldman writes of pesticide waste dumps, municipal landfills, toxic waste pits, injection wells, pesticide applications, mining and oil exploration sites, and septic tanks that pollute groundwater—the water that cities, small communities, and rural homeowners tap with their wells. Private rural water supplies are usually wells. In areas of high agricultural chemical use they are vulnerable to contamination. Public supplies are even more vulnerable. The EPA’s National Pesticide Survey Project Summary of 1990 found that community water systems were two and a half times more likely to register pesticides above minimum reporting limits than were private rural wells.

It’s enough to make you sick. Avoid considering property near these facilities and conditions. Even private septic tanks can now be avoided by using one of the many commercially available composting toilets. John Todd, cofounder of New Alchemy Institute, is doing great things with biological waste treatment facilities. The bio-treatment consists simply of running wastes through channels in which various plants grow. In areas of cold winters, the channels are protected by greenhouses. After enough different plants absorb nutrients, the endpoint water is cleaner and safer than the output of most municipal treatment plants—without using an ounce of chlorine. Todd says: “Since the Clean Water Act in 1972, we’ve spent billions of dollars and haven’t really improved water quality. We use 70,000 different chemicals routinely in commerce and then dump them into the water. Those chemicals are ungluing the natural world.”

Agricultural water pollution

Beware of potential well contamination from agribusiness operations. U.S. farmers apply nearly 400,000 tons of pesticides per year. Over 30 years after biologist Rachel Carson explained the danger in Silent Spring, we continue to poison our bodies and our children’s bodies. Osha Gray Davidson reports that a 1986 EPA study found 17 different pesticides in the groundwater of 23 states. In the food basket of the nation, 58 pesticides were found in 3,000 California wells. In Toxic Nation Fred Setterberg and Lonny Shavelson state that two-thirds of California’s wells are contaminated. In “The Mississippi River Under Siege,” (Water, National Geographic) William S. Ellis wrote that DDT continues to be found in the Mississippi although it has been banned in the U.S. for more than 20 years. In Born in the Country: A History of Rural America, David B. Danbom writes that “In 1986, one-third of Iowa’s wells contained pesticides, and half of Nebraska’s municipal water systems were similarly contaminated. Because many of these compounds do not break down naturally, they are likely to be with us for a long time . . . In many parts of the corn belt, water supplies carry such high concentrations of nitrogen—which has been linked to birth defects and some cancers—that people are advised to drink bottled water.”

The Department of Agriculture estimates that areas of greatest potential pesticide contamination are California’s San Joaquin Valley, western Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and eastern Nebraska, the upper Midwest, western Pennsylvania, and the entire southeastern coastal plain from Florida to southern New Jersey.

Mining pollution

Avoid areas downhill or downstream from current or old mining operations. Almost every place where minerals have been extracted is now polluted. Decades of coal mining have poisoned much of Appalachia’s water. Still, there are non-polluted places. In An American Homeplace, Donald McCaig writes of his farm in Highland County, Virginia:

“There are several reasons our farm has clean water . . . Though the Chamber of Commerce and other forward-thinking citizens here have begged industry to come and set up shop, provide employment and paychecks, so far industry has declined this offer, preferring to ruin the water of communities with better roads. And there’s never been much in Highland County worth stealing. We lack coal and other minerals, there’s no oil. The best timber was taken off in the early twenties.”


In rural America, approximately 97 percent of us depend on underground water sources. The average depth of all domestic U.S. wells is less than 50 feet. Shallow wells are more subject to local pollution sources but even deep wells may be affected by distant pollution sources.

Wells are subject to contamination from both surface and below-ground contaminants. Pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and industrial wastes are common sources of pollution.

The EPA has stated that there is some toxic substance in all U.S. groundwater. In light of this, it is imperative to test all household water and if necessary to consider point-of-use water purification devices.

Most wells were created by well drillers who kept a detailed log of the drilling history, the depth, the quality, and the amount of flow developed. Consult with well drillers about a well’s capacity to meet your needs. County health officials or extension agents may be able to refer you to a local laboratory that tests water.

New wells are expensive. Again, local well drillers are the best source of information. Nobody can guarantee to find water but local drillers stay in business by being successful a high percentage of the time.


Some people still believe that a spring emits pure water because it has miraculously been filtered by the ground. Not usually so. Michael Parfit, a writer in Water, gets his water from a spring at a mountain in Montana. He always figured his water was safe, because it was “at the beginning of the flow.” Then he had the water tested. The lab reported: “Too numerous to count—background bacteria.”

In 1982, I had the opportunity to join a college field trip to hydrologist Tom Aley’s place in southern Missouri. Tom first walked us around the surface of his land, teaching the difference between general recharge and discrete recharge, the two ways that rainwater moves down into the ground. One of the discrete recharge areas was a sinkhole caused by the collapse of a cavern ceiling, now a stagnant, scum-filled pond, with living and dead plants and various animal remains. We later climbed down into his Tumbling Creek Cave, which Tom calls Ozark Underground Laboratory. We were shown the gush of water falling from a crevice in the cave’s ceiling, the beginning of the stream, water gathered from recharge areas above, including the sinkhole. Tumbling Creek meanders along the cave floor (we admired blind cave salamanders and avoided disturbing the bat colony) and exits a mile away at the base of a bluff, what anyone would call a spring. Almost zero filtering takes place between the recharge area and the outlet, the “spring.” And we all know what accumulates under bat colonies.

Aley has performed many dye tracings, proving the recharge sources of springs to be numerous, distant, and dangerous, including abandoned dump sites full of old batteries, paint cans, and chemical containers. He explains that the greater the spring flow, the greater the probability that the collection area is large and diverse and includes such toxic recharge areas.

The point is that springs are simply outlets for underground water flows, not far from the surface, and little filtered. Rain falls on the land, finds cracks in the surface, gathers with water from other sources and makes its way into an underground stream. When it appears as a spring, it may or may not have been filtered. Until tests prove otherwise, always assume that a spring is polluted. And if you use it, have it tested annually, as conditions in the recharge system may change.

Surface water

Water for household needs is vital, but why settle for survival? Springs, streams, rivers, waterfalls, ponds, and lakes enhance not only the water supply but are pleasurable additions to any property. Some of our favorite times are spent sitting on our porch, listening to the unceasing sounds of our little stream tumbling over rocks, a reassuring, happy background of natural song.

Surface water attracts wildlife. Most mornings a Great Blue heron comes for a breakfast of minnows. Often we are visited by a pair of wood ducks. Once a bald eagle came and sat for an hour in a sycamore overlooking the wide part of the water. Deer, turkeys, and kingfishers make regular appearances. Beavers have established themselves upstream.

The quality of any surface water is directly caused by the nature of its watershed. A stream receiving runoff from an agricultural area may have bacteria from animal wastes and chemical residues from fertilizers and pesticides. A creek below a clear-cut hillside will be full of silt. After full vegetation returns the same stream may run clear.

The advantages of property adjoining or crossed by a waterway are many—the downside, less obvious, is that water is a magnet to others. Depending on the size of your waterway you may be bothered by boaters, fishermen, and floaters, the traffic that water brings.

Check the history of flooding with neighbors. Also determine laws regarding usage, damming, and diversion. And check with local officials for new laws being considered.

Coliform bacteria and Giardia lamblia are two of the most common disease-causing organisms. Coliform is the standard indicator of harmful organisms in water. All surface water should be considered to have a high coliform bacteria count, which is caused by the animals that live in, on, and around it. If surface water is to be used for household purposes it should be filtered and treated.

Small streams are preferable to rivers because they are closer to the source, are generally clearer and less polluted, and attract fewer tourists.

If there is no well or surface water

If you consider buying property with no existing well and there is no available surface water, you must ensure that a successful well can be installed. Check with neighbors to find how deep their wells are, if they ever run dry, and if they know who drilled them. Your best information source will be well drillers with substantial local experience. They can tell you the odds and the cost of creating a good well.

Heart disease, cancer, and water

We once thought that hard water decreased heart disease. Some now believe that it is magnesium, not calcium in our water which reduces heart disease. Above-average magnesium content in water occurs in North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, most of New Mexico, eastern Montana, eastern Colorado, western Arkansas, western Missouri, all of Texas but the southeast corner, and northwest Utah. Many of these same areas also have had the longest-lived persons in the U.S.

Rapid City, South Dakota, drinking water contains a high concentration of selenium, a mineral believed to help prevent cancer and heart disease. The rate of cancer in Rapid City is far below the national average. Of course, moving to a place to get selenium would be rather extreme since selenium is available as a supplement. It is one of a group called antioxidants.

From bad water to good

Physical contamination can result from surface runoff during periods of heavy rainfall, carrying various substances into the water source. Physical contamination includes oils, salts, dirt, and bad taste and smell from the growth of algae.

Chemical contamination occurs from mine drainage, landfill leakage, storage tank leaks, spills, fertilizer and pesticide runoff.

Biological contamination comes from municipal, industrial, agricultural, and household wastewater systems. It occurs naturally in surface water, the result of animal life. Bacteria and viruses come from animals: wild, domestic, and human. Septic tank leaks can contaminate wells.

Any water can be made safe to drink. Polluted water can safely be used if it is appropriately filtered and treated at the point of use. If a property embodies all other characteristics you want in outstanding proportion, then the expense of water treatment may make sense. Make a thorough investigation to determine the source and extent of pollution and to determine if it will improve or if it is likely to worsen. Other considerations include cost of equipment, cost of operation, maintenance, and degree of safety. Get the advice of experts.

Water quality guidelines

  • The ideal home place is far from pollution sources.
  • Rural areas generally have cleaner water than cities.
  • Deep wells are usually safer than shallow wells.
  • Springs, creeks, and rivers are typically cleaner near their source and more polluted farther downstream.
  • All water sources should be considered unsafe until tested. Check with county officials and well drillers for a testing source.
  • All rivers should be considered polluted.
  • Major polluters include agricultural, industrial, municipal, and military facilities.
  • Avoid buying property downwind or downwater from farms that may use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
  • Heavily developed lakeside areas often have pollution from excessive numbers of septic tanks.
  • Upstream logging operations create high amounts of sediment.
  • Oceanside waterways and wells may be affected by saltwater intrusion at high tide.

On your criteria worksheet circle the water features your ideal place will have and show your preferences on water and waste systems.

Resources and recommended reading

Acid rain is discussed in Chapter 27—Places and conditions to avoid

  • Brown, Lester R., ed. State of the World 1996. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
  • Ford, Norman. The 50 Healthiest Places to Live and Retire in the United States. Bedford, MA: Mills & Sanderson, 1991.
  • Goldman, Benjamin A. The Truth About Where You Live: An atlas for action on toxins and mortality. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1991. Eye-opening text and maps are the result of use of the freedom of information laws.
  • Graves, William, editor. National Geographic Special Edition: Water: The Power, Promise, and Turmoil of North America’s Fresh Water. Washington, DC: The National Geographic Society, 1993.
  • Mitchell, John G. Widespread as Rain and Deadly as Poison: Our Polluted Runoff. National Geographic Magazine, February, 1996.
  • Robbins, Jim. Last Refuge: The environmental showdown in Yellowstone and the American West. New York: Morrow, 1993.
  • Setterberg, Fred and Lonny Shavelson. Toxic Nation: The Fight to Save Our Communities from Chemical Contamination. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993.

Water information

A free booklet, Ground Water and the Rural Homeowner is available from: U.S. Geological Survey, Lakewood ESIC Box 25046, Bldg. 810 Denver Federal Center, MS-504 Denver, CO 80225 Phone: 303-202-4210, Fax: 303-202-4695 The USGS also has a brochure simply titled Ground Water which has a good map showing major groundwater areas in the United States.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
800-426-4791 (Safe drinking water hotline)

Soil & Water Conservation Society:
For a free conservation packet and other information.

American Groundwater Trust: 800-423-7748

Water Environment Federation
601 Wythe Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-1994
Fax: 703-684-2492
Presents materials on water-quality issues.

Water tests

County and state health departments may help in selecting tests and locating testing laboratories. If you can’t find someone local, you can have water tested by Watercheck-National Testing Laboratories. Call them at 800-458-3330.

Water tests, purification devices, and composting toilets

Solar Living Sourcebook is a combination catalog and compilation of useful articles. Sort of a Whole Earth Catalog of energy-efficiency and alternative energy systems. Offerings include water testing and treatment systems. Includes a selection of water filtering and purification devices and composting toilets.
Real Goods Corporation
555 Leslie Street
Ukiah, CA 95482-5507
Fax: 707-468-9486

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