Water Purity and Organic Gardening

Watering the GardenThe small things we do to keep pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals out of our water supply.

The recent events in West Virginia have us thinking about water. In the meantime, we keep up on the situation, with help from Ken Ward Jr.’s excellent reporting at the West Virginia Gazette.

We do our bit in protecting water resources, foregoing chemical fertilizers and pesticides in our home space, keeping them out of the soil, keeping them from running off to streets and storm drains. Most of the benefit comes right on the ground where we live — the knowledge that the fruits and vegetables we grow, the yard where our children play, both are free of potentially harmful chemicals. But we also like to think of ourselves as making a contribution to overall water purity. An event like the one in West Virginia — the drinking water for some 300,00 people poisoned — makes us realize how small our backyard contribution is against massive spills on the commercial level.

We want clean, safe water coming into our homes and going into our gardens. The West Virginia incident shows us just how vulnerable and fragile our water resources are. Safe supplies of water have long been a global issue. Adequate supplies and water rights have long been a fixture in the U.S. Always an issue in the West, water rights and distribution are sparking battles between states and various interests. The quick return of drought in the Southwest and California make shortages — something already faced by farmers — a distinct possibility. The problem is exacerbated by the fact we waste, that we contaminate so much of it. We don’t like to take political sides but we’re glad to consider issues. In other words, like (almost) everybody else, we’re on the side of protecting our water supply.

Nobody has to tell us how crucial water is to our health and well-being. Nor do we have to be reminded that what ever is in the water ends up in us. But why isn’t this the first consideration when we debate fracking waste, run-off from factory hog, beef, and chicken farms, when we destroy all the creeks that come off a mountain that’s being topped for coal? Why does water always have to stand aside?

As gardeners and consumers of what we hope is healthy commercially produced food, we’re especially interested in avoiding pesticides and farm chemicals. This report from the EPA’s “Getting Up To Speed: Ground Water Contamination” (PDF) shows just how badly rural water sources in agricultural areas are:

After further analysis, EPA estimated that for the wells that contain pesticides, a significant percentage probably contain chemical concentrations that exceed the federal health-based limits (e.g., maximum contaminant levels or health advisory levels). Approximately 14.6 percent of the wells tested contained levels of one or more pesticides above the minimum reporting limit set in the survey. The most common pesticides found were atrazine and metabolites (breakdown products) of dimethyl tetrachloroterephthalate (DCPA, commonly known as Dacthal), which is used in many utility easement weed-control programs and for lawn care.

Notice that not all the contaminants are limited to rural areas (lawns are especially notorious consumer of chemical fertilizers and herbicides). According to that same report: “A number of microorganisms and thousands of synthetic chemicals have the potential to contaminate ground water.” From ground water, they make their way into the drinking water.

Organic gardeners are involved with water in myriad ways. We design our lawns and gardens around it, we collect it in rain barrels, we buy soaker hoses and install drip irrigation systems, we place mulch around our plants to cut down on the use of it, we carry it in watering pails. These efforts are their own reward in addition to the potential saving on a water bill.

So how do we deal with the insignificance our home gardening efforts seem in comparison to the world at large? We try to increase our small contribution by enlarging our territory. Most clean water efforts come at the local level. The issues, ranging from controlled burns in public watersheds to development proposals in areas where water is in short supply, are worth getting involved in. They effect the water we bring into our homes. They affect the price we pay for it.

While some areas are getting abundant moisture this year and others are suffering drought, its good to be reminded how precious water is to our lives. Let’s do what we can to guarantee a clean and sufficient supply of water to our grandchildren. And good luck to the people around Charleston, West Virgina. We know things like this — things that threaten our water supplies — could happen to us.

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