Building Principles: Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

Richard "Rick" Stryker, PE

In Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes, “Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink . . . .” Though he’s writing about sailors stuck at sea who are surrounded by undrinkable sea water, have you ever asked if your camp water supply is just like that: all around you, but not drinkable? Some time back, this column looked at common issues with camps’ potable water systems. Recently, I’ve been getting more and more questions about water systems, so I thought that it was time to revisit some of those earlier points, as a springboard into some new ones.

The recap: Almost universally (and I can’t think of even one exception), camps rely on groundwater wells (as opposed to surface waters like lakes or streams) to provide water for camp. That’s because soil itself provides a spectacular treatment mechanism before the percolating rainwater reaches a local aquifer. It acts both as a strainer and a medium for microbes of all kinds to consume or convert contaminants that would otherwise make people sick. Given sufficient percolation depth (which equates to time for the water to travel through it), microbes in the soil consume toxins and unwanted nutrients, and the soil matrix screens particulates. Without any human intervention at all, the water is naturally cleaned and purified. Millions of residential wells, including the one that serves my home, deliver fresh, clean, potable water without any human intervention whatsoever.

For these reasons, then, potable water wells should be deep. In many locations, the top fifty feet of a well is isolated from the water-bearing layers beneath specifically to exclude undertreated water from entering the system. Where solid bedrock is the regional geology, steel casing is driven into the rock to seal out the undertreated water. Where the shallow material is gravelly or sandy, a special mineral slurry is injected between the outside of the casing and the ground to create a water-excluding plug.

Over time, though, even subtle changes near the well may affect the quality of the water it produces. Earthwork and grading may change surface flow patterns, directing runoff toward the well head (the pipe that sticks up), which may allow unfiltered water to enter the well borehole. Water doesn’t need to flood the top of the well head, either, because where the outside of the pipe and the soil come together is a weakness in the system. Unfiltered runoff can chase the well casing right into the aquifer and contaminate the supply. So it’s very important to account for the location of your wells when there’s development at or around camp and do whatever you must to protect them.

Depending on where you are, geology and development can also affect your water quality and available quantity. Particularly where deep soils are sandy or gravelly, installation of new wells nearby may also affect how the water moves below the surface. So be aware of how you and your neighbors situate new water supply wells.

Speaking of quantity, there are some pretty problematic misunderstandings about the capacity of wells. Probably the most important point is that there is a fixed amount of water that a well can deliver, called its “specific capacity.” Simply put, you should never ever draw water OUT of a well faster than the water can flow INTO it. Often referred to as “water mining,” this can come about from several situations. The most common include:
• Emergency installation of a well pump with a higher capacity than the one it is replacing
• The owner (you) wanting more water to satisfy demand

The amount of water that can be drawn from a well is determined by both its construction (the hole diameter and the depth) and the rate at which the water moves horizontally through the earth past the well. Much like your cash flow through your bank account, it is a fixed value and has absolutely NOTHING to do with how much water you WANT or NEED. There are testing procedures that will help to accurately determine the well’s sustained yield. So if keeping camp supplied with potable water isn’t optional, I think that’s a smart investment over the well driller’s best guess.

Despite the soil’s breathtaking capacity to renovate water, there may be some other things about your water that you want (or may be required) to change. The first of these is disinfection. By and large, properly constructed and maintained water supply wells are free from illness-causing bacteria. These are most prevalent in the very top layers of the soil, so by taking steps to prevent those microbes from entering the deep aquifer from which you draw the water, you’ve done the most important part to secure your supply. However, once the water begins to move in pipes through the shallow layers of soil, cracks in the pipe and leaks at pipe joints can allow those surface soil microbes into the distribution system. To ensure that these are adequately controlled, some jurisdictions require disinfection of all camp water supplies. Usually, a chlorine compound is mixed into the water just after it leaves the well. System operators or owners are then required to submit samples for analysis to show that there is sufficient chlorine remaining to disinfect the system and that there is no live bacteria at the tap most distant from the well.

We see one particular opportunity for contamination far too frequently: Is your camp one of the many that has hundreds of feet of black polyethylene (HDPE) pipe snaking all over the grounds? This method is common where it’s difficult or expensive to bury the lines. The rationale is that it’s easy to drain in the fall and easy to check for leaks in the spring. What’s overlooked, though, is that each and every connection or branch that uses a barbed fitting and hose clamp is an opportunity for surface contaminants to enter the system. Some organizations have tried to raise the lines off the ground by hanging the pipe on trees, sort of solving one problem while creating trip hazards (nobody ever walks through the woods at night without a flashlight at camp, right?). Resolve to stop fooling around with this: Bury the water line below the frost line so that it doesn’t have to be drained at all, and make proper connections with materials and fittings intended for just that service. Small diameter PVC is primed and glued. HDPE sections and fittings are heat-welded for a watertight seal. Save the hose clamps for your vehicles.

Camps that drain their systems for the winter need to be especially watchful when opening in the spring. It’s common for operators to blow the water out of the pipes in the fall and leave the ends exposed/unsecured. Poisoned in the buildings, dying rodents often seek water and shelter. Their droppings and corpses are common causes for system contamination. Typically, health departments require only that the “most distant tap from the source on the system” be tested for chlorine residual. So unless each and every leg of the water system is tested each and every spring, who knows what toxic soup is arriving at the tap downstream?

One last point to ponder on the topic of water treatment is water quality. Fundamentally different from potability, this aspect involves consideration of how the water looks, tastes, and smells. Above all, your water has to be something that people WANT to consume. Even if it meets the regulatory standards, if it is inherently unappealing to drink, dehydration is another problem in the wings. Camp leadership needs to set the example by drinking plain, unbottled tap water to encourage the hot, sweaty, wildly active campers to do the same. While everyone’s “home water” will taste different from camp’s, it should be the go-to drink. Iron, manganese, and sulfur can all be removed from the solution (some do by themselves when chlorine is added!) with very small additions to the system. The cost of systems that will improve water quality is miniscule when compared to the cost of the staff and guests not drinking enough water or even against the cost of shipping in bottled water.

Would you ever ask your parents if they think that safe, consumable water from the tap is a luxury or a requirement? Probably not; but you probably can imagine their look and reaction to the question. Are you doing what you can and should do to ensure that their expectations are being met? Today is the day to start improving your water system.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a particular passion for helping camps with infrastructure, planning, and regulatory issues. He can always be reached at or 570.828.4004.

Originally published in the March/April 2014 Camping Magazine.

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