Homeowner Communication Strategies Vary with the Weather

NGWA’s resources help contractors communicate to well owners how to best take care of their most valuable resource.

By Bill Alley, Ph.D.

“Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” This witty remark often credited to Mark Twain actually came from his friend and neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner.

While the groundwater industry may not be able to do anything about the weather, it’s on the front lines for helping society deal with its vagaries—a role that changes with the weather. Let’s start with times of flooding.

As rivers rise, water moves laterally through the riverbank into the groundwater system as bank storage. If the stream stage overtops the banks, large areas of the land surface may become flooded. While water in bank storage may return to the stream over a period of days or weeks, it may take months or years for water recharged over floodplains to return to the stream.

Flooding may expose wells to all sorts of contaminants from upstream sources, including farm fields, livestock operations, and overloaded wastewater treatment plants. While storms may mobilize chemicals, the greatest immediate concern is the possibility of well contamination by pathogens.

Even slight flooding around a well can potentially contaminate wellheads that are cracked or faulty. The locations of wells relative to surface water bodies, the topography, the local geology, and soil moisture conditions prior to flooding—all affect the number of wells impacted. If the ground is saturated with water, septic system wastewater can be drawn into nearby wells, adding another possible source of pathogens.

If there is any indication that the water supply has been breached by floodwaters, even without noticeable changes in taste or smell, the National Ground Water Association recommends that home and business owners obtain the services of a qualified well services contractor to inspect, and if needed, disinfect water well systems before drawing well water after the floodwaters recede.

Conducting another water analysis one month or two after the first test is often advised as well. For example, in colder climates warmer weather may allow floodwaters to infiltrate previously frozen ground and contaminate groundwater.

When large floods are on the horizon, it’s a good time for water well professionals to bone up on how to communicate about flooding to customers. Places to start are the NGWA website for well owners, which features a section on flooding resources and an article on hurricane-flooding resources by 2020 NGWA President Merritt Partridge.

NGWA has other resources that contractors may find helpful in dealing with flooded water wells, including the best suggested practice “Residential Water Well Disinfection Following a Flood Event.” BSPs are free to NGWA members and available in the Association’s Online Bookstore.

There also may be useful resources available from local health departments and state agencies. It’s good to know what these agencies are telling people. For example, are they offering kits to test for coliform bacteria?

While floods come fast and furious, droughts slowly creep along, often with no clear ending in sight. Public and media attention to groundwater tends to diminish during wet periods and increase during droughts. Thus, droughts are an opportune time to make people more aware of the importance of groundwater to their daily lives. Homeowners may be receptive to suggested actions to conserve and protect their water supply.

The best way to deal with droughts is to prepare for them ahead of time. Between periods of drought and flooding are opportune times to encourage private well owners to have their wells inspected by a water well systems professional to make sure they are in good condition to address any water supply and quality issues.

It’s useful to remind well owners that weather extremes will happen. Are key parts of their system—the well screen and casing, pump, and wellhead—able to support future extremes of weather and use? In addition to taking care of their well, regular septic system inspections are important.

At the broader scale, groundwater management actions can help enhance groundwater sustainability. In particular, managed aquifer recharge can be a useful long-term drought mitigation tool in some settings. Managed aquifer recharge is one of NGWA’s priority issues, and it has a best suggested practice on aquifer storage and recovery, which uses injection wells.

Monitoring of water levels is another priority. Data collected over years to decades can track the long-term effects of aquifer development. NGWA has long advocated for the National Ground-Water Monitoring Network as an efficient way to achieve better long-term groundwater monitoring, as you can’t manage what you don’t understand.

In summary, regardless of the weather, it’s always a good time to communicate to well owners how to best take care of their most valuable resource. The general messages stay the same, but the communication strategies and emphasis change with the weather.

William M. Alley, Ph.D., is director of science and technology for the National Ground Water Association. Previously, he served as chief, Office of Groundwater for the U.S. Geological Survey for almost two decades. Alley has published more than 100 scientific publications, including the book High and Dry: Meeting the Challenges of the World’s Growing Dependence on Groundwater, co-authored with his wife, Rosemarie. Alley can be reached at walley@ngwa.org.

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