Water tests help prevent human and animal illness on farm and ranches

Water tests help prevent human and animal illness on farm and ranches

August 23, 2006:

A water test tailored to the needs of a farm or ranch is the key to safer water sources on agricultural operations, says a water specialist with Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (AAFRD) in Red Deer.

An article on the subject, "How safe is the water you drink?" and links to funding support are available at the Alberta Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) Company Web site at www.albertaEFP.com.

"The number one priority when it comes to water quality and safety is to make sure the level of water quality matches what you’re going to use it for," says Ken Williamson. "A safe concentration of nitrate for animals, for example, is not the same as what is considered safe for humans. An effective water test has to reflect those needs."

It’s also important to know what kind of water test to use, how to test it and how often, says Williamson. One way to gain an understanding of the potential risks related to farm water is to develop an Environmental Farm Plan (EFP).

An EFP is a free and confidential self-assessment of environmental risks on the farm that can act as a tool to help producers tackle water quality issues and many other on-farm environmental issues. Producers who complete EFPs are eligible to receive up to $30,000 in funding for a wide range of environmental farm projects through the Canada-Alberta Farm Stewardship Program.

Health Canada has set maximum acceptable concentrations (MACs) for most contaminants and aesthetic objectives (AOs) for others. Although it is not essential for private water supplies to meet these guidelines, they can provide a strong foundation for a water contaminant management plan, says Williamson.

There are two basic kinds of water tests, says Williamson: routine chemical analysis and microbiological analysis. The routine chemical analysis covers a suite of about 20 parameters such as hardness, iron, sulphate, sodium and nitrate, with most identified in the Health Canada guidelines as having maximum acceptable concentrations. The microbiological test, meanwhile, tests for total coliform bacteria.

The testing process for household drinking water is relatively simple and inexpensive, says Williamson, with sample bottles and instruction usually available from local health region offices. The process can be a little more complicated when it comes to water for other purposes such as watering livestock, irrigation and conditions in real estate deals.

"In those cases, it’s best to look for private laboratories that have a close-as-possible drop-off point, make arrangements to receive whatever sample bottles they want to use and receive instructions on how to ship the sample to the laboratory," says Williamson.

Under normal conditions, private water supplies generally do not need to test any more than once every one or two years, says Williamson. However, it’s important to learn to identify changes in the water source and take appropriate preventative action.

"Surface water changes continually, but wells shouldn’t change significantly between seasons or between rainstorms. If it does it’s a red flag that something’s wrong with the well and an indication that it’s time to do a water test," he says.

For more information on water testing, read the full article in the AEFP Journal at www.albertaEFP.ca. Through the Agricultural Policy Framework (APF), the Government of Canada provides major funding to the EFP program in Alberta, with the Government of Alberta providing additional in-kind support services to help the agricultural sector develop and implement Environmental Farm Plans.

Additional support has been provided by the Agriculture and Food Council, through the Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Initiative, the Alberta Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture Council and various ministries of the Government of Alberta. Contributions have also come from more than 100 local municipalities, businesses and agricultural organizations.


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