Rural groundwater 'vulnerable,' study finds

A new groundwater study shows a huge section of rural New Brunswick is "vulnerable" to contamination, but the study didn't look at the possible impact of major industry, such as shale gas.

Does not look at possible contamination from industry

The Aquifer Vulnerability Assessment found 56 per cent of the nearly 6,000 square kilometers studied is vulnerable to contamination. (CBC)

A new groundwater study shows a huge section of rural New Brunswick is "vulnerable" to contamination.

But the Aquifer Vulnerability Assessment, released Tuesday by the Royal District Planning Commission, does not address the possible impact of major industry, such as shale gas, on well water.

The study, being hailed as the first of its kind in the province, is meant only as an educational tool, according to the commission.

It's designed to help homeowners, farmers and business owners understand why they should monitor their own activities, such as pesticide use or flushing septic tanks.

Many New Brunswickers depend on aquifers for their drinking water, yet there was very little information about how the waterscape looked and worked, said spokeswoman Patricia Munkittrick.

Patricia Munkittrick, of the Royal District Planning Commission, says the study is the first of its kind in the province. (CBC)

So the commission paid exp Services Inc. $80,000 to conduct the study and map out the 5,800 square kilometers it oversees, stretching from the Bay of Fundy to Grand Lake, and including Gagetown, Norton, St. Martins and Sussex Corner.

The study found 56 per cent of the area is vulnerable — meaning human activity could contaminate the aquifers, the groundwater close to the surface that people often tap with their wells.

Fred Baechler, a hydrogeologist with exp, says the study looked at geology and the water cycle.

It's not detailed enough to be used for site specific issues, and it did not look at industry.

"That aspect wasn't part of this study. We were just looking at how groundwater could get contaminated from rain coming down, hitting the ground and infiltrating in," he said.

"So the impacts of deep wells or mining, those sorts of things, where, if they're not done properly, could allow some deep water to come up into this freshwater zone that we draw water from, it's certainly important, but it's not something that we were trying to focus on, in this study."

The study does not suggest prohibiting any development or removing any existing operations, but notes that some regions may be more susceptible to contamination and development and those areas would likely require increased mitigation measures to reduce potential impacts.

Herman Hawthorne, of Penobsquis, says the study comes too late to protect his well.

Some people who live within the map's borders, such as Penobsquis resident Herman Hawthorne, say it’s an important first step, even if it's too late to save their wells.

Hawthorne believes his well water was ruined by industry twice — by operations at the nearby potash mine and by a series of seismic tests conducted in the search for natural gas.

"I went to have a bath one night and I run water in the tub and there was roughly about a half inch of mud in the tub," he said.

"And then when you do your wash for your clothes, you get halfway through your cycle and you could wind up, when the rinse comes, you could have mud."

The study is a great idea, said Hawthorne. "I’d like to see more of that because if we know where the water is, then probably they can stay away from those spots.

"I want my kids and my grandkids to have drinking water, you know, simple as that. And if we keep on the way we're going, we won't have no water," he said.

The study, which was carried out between September 2010 to June 2011, may also be used in making decisions about building new subdivisions, officials said.

The Royal District Planning Commission, established in 1998, is responsible for green lighting subdivisions, issuing building permits, and approving zoning.

The 15-member appointed board serves 33,000 residents of five villages and 21 local service districts.