Water To Drink, A Precious Gift

A new day dawns. We jump in the shower, grab a cup of coffee, brush our teeth and we’re off. (Oh, and there was probably a flush in there somewhere too.) How would these mundane events be changed if no water flowed from the tap? We take for granted that our water supply is available, clean and abundant especially in Chautauqua County. We receive plenty of rainfall (780 billion gallons per year), a Great Lake is our northern border and, with the exception of a few areas, underground water supplies are excellent.

The inhabitants and visitors of Chautauqua County are truly blessed by the presence of natural and human resources. I recently visited with Bill Boria, one of the two water resource specialists for the Chautauqua County Health Department. Bill’s main responsibility is the management of the public water supply program which provides most of our drinking water in the county. His scientific training qualifies him to perform his job; his dedication to the health of each of us allows him to do his job with endless energy and urgency.

Drinking water comes from two sources: underground or surface water. Surface water sources can be rivers, natural lakes or man-made reservoirs. Since there are no major rivers in the county, our surface sources are Lake Erie, Chautauqua Lake or reservoirs. In Chautauqua County, 80 percent of the people acquire their drinking water from 91 public suppliers, such as cities or villages. The public suppliers pull approximately 75 percent of their water from the ground and 25 percent from surface sources. Most of the remaining percentage of the population acquires its drinking water from approximately 20,000 individual, private wells. For the private wells also, 75 percent draw from ground water and 25 percent from surface water. It is worth noting that two residential areas, Chautauqua Institution and Chautauqua Lake Estates, are brought publicly distributed water pulled out of Chautauqua Lake.

Why are our water sources of such high quality? The answer lies mostly in the geology of the county. A major divide transects the county so that surface water flows to either the Gulf of Mexico via tributary streams of the Allegheny River or to the Atlantic Ocean via Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River. Thus, all of our county streams are the headwaters for these bodies of water. Also, the geologic deposits underground, the hills and the valleys isolate pockets of ground water. This isolation keeps those areas free from widespread sources of contamination. Additionally, Bill and others at the County Health Department are mandated to test the public water supplies and, if any problems are discovered, take immediate actions. In essence, we are in control of our own water quality destiny because we are up here at the top of the hill. What an exciting and valuable place to be.

Since the water we are using today has been on Planet Earth for millions of years, it is recycled. The problem is that less than 1 percent of all the world’s water is available to drink and, if it becomes contaminated in any way, that water is no longer drinkable. We must conserve this precious resource. The simple act of turning off the tap while you are brushing your teeth can save 100 gallons of water a month. We also must not become complacent that our water supply cannot be harmed. Currently, the three most widespread sources of water contamination in Chautauqua County are road salt, nitrates from fertilizers and microbes that are becoming more environmentally resistant. The practice of using salt on highways in winter is only about 60 years old, but increases in the chloride content in the water were seen in the 1970s and have doubled in the last 20 years. The change from small farms to larger, concentrated farms is also placing new stresses on our water sources due to changes in silage and manure management. Water supplies as early as the 1890s were treated for microbes, but more resistant bacteria, parasites and viruses have recently been seen. Remember, Bill tests the public supplies for any contamination, but private wells must be tested by the owner.

If you have any questions about your water, the Chautauqua County Health Department is willing to help. Municipalities are required to distribute an annual report of their water quality by the end of May. Ask for yours. Also, take advantage of the county-provided hazardous waste disposal days. The sparkle on the lake can remind us not only of its beauty also the fresh drinking water it provides, a resource precious than diamonds.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.