Healthy water starts with healthy rural wells

How’s your well working? Ask rural Albertans this question, and their answers will range from excellent … to not so good.

Over his 36 years as an Agricultural Water Specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Ken Williamson worked on the front lines of rural water quality. Now that he’s retired, Williamson is on a mission to spread the word about sound practices for effective water well management.

Rural water management and water quality are important issues in the eyes of Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA). That’s why we invited Williamson to speak at our Annual General Meeting in Red Deer in January. In a conference with an overall water theme, Williamson’s presentation was clearly one of the most popular.

Over 450,000 Albertans rely on privately-owned well water for their households. Provincial water specialists like Williamson are part of a province-wide Working Well Program that hosts workshops to show farmers and rural well owners how to properly care for their wells.

“We really want to help people to do a good job of keeping records on their wells, testing their water regularly, and if they have problems, using the standard maintenance techniques to solve those problems,” Williamson says.

The workshops are offered for free through the joint efforts of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Alberta Health Services, Alberta Health and Alberta Water Well Drilling Association. Since 2008, the program has delivered over 187 workshops and has reached 5,000 Albertans.

Workshop topics include the basics of groundwater, proper well construction, contamination risks, the importance of well reclamation and best management practices.

Williamson says that the workshops also identify several common well problems in Alberta. In his eyes, two of the most common and significant problems are:

  • unused wells that are abandoned, that then attract small animals, or corrode and leak over time, and
  • well pits and basement wells that are not properly capped or are susceptible to sewage back up or flooding.

“There are thousands of abandoned wells around the province,” says Williamson. “People are reluctant to spend the money to get rid of them or properly plug them, but they can cause real problems. For example, the steel casing of the unused well can corrode and flow undesirable water back into the aquifer that supplies the new well.”

Williamson recommends that farmers remove or plug abandoned wells, and cap or decommission well pits. While well plugging can be done without a professional, he recommends talking with a licensed water well contractor or water specialist to determine the scope of the well issues.

Williamson also points out that funding help is available to farmers for well projects through the Growing Forward 2 On-Farm Water Management Program.

The 2015 Working Well Workshops are currently running through to the end of March in many locations in the province – click on the link to see the workshop schedule and find additional well resources.

Food Freedom Day: hug a farmer and give thanks

Each year, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) raises awareness of the agriculture and food industry by celebrating Food Freedom Day: the date when the average Canadian has earned enough income to pay for their annual grocery bill.

In 2015, it’s estimated that Canadians will spend just 10.6% of their disposable income on food. This year, that places Food Freedom Day on Friday, February 6.

“Farmers are very proud that we are productive enough to make an abundant supply of safe, nutritious food available for a small portion of the average Alberta family’s income. It wasn’t too long ago that Canadians were spending closer to 18% of their disposable income on food,” says Grace MacGregor, AFA Board member who farms near Hughenden, Alberta.

The 2015 theme for Food Freedom Day explores the importance of soil in the production of our food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has also named 2015 the International Year of the Soils.

MacGregor notes that in addition to providing the foundation for wholesome food production, soil filters our water, it can lessen the impact of flood and drought, and healthy, productive soil is ultimately needed for a sustainable future for us all.

Alberta producers – and farmers across Canada – have been leaders in sustainable soil practices. The move towards conservation tillage practices that improve soil erosion and the quality of the soil has greatly improved cultivated land. Other technologies – like using GPS systems in cropping – are also helping to successfully manage soil conditions on the farm.

MacGregor notes that as Alberta farmers look ahead to the 2015 planting season, they are as focussed as ever on producing safe, high-quality food for Albertans and export customers around the world.

For more information on Food Freedom Day, visit the CFA website: http://www.cfa-fca.ca/programs-projects/food-freedom-day-2015, or join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ffd2015.