For Release January 29, 2002

Whatís In My Water?

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

An article in Sundayís Daily Union about the Junction City water supply was interesting, but in need of a little correcting. Water has often been something that is taken for granted, until it is gone, in limited supply, or tastes funny. The irony of it all, is that taste is a very poor evaluation of water safety. Water that tastes great, can be very unhealthy and water that has some very disagreeable tastes, can be very safe to drink! So, what is in our water, what isnít in our water, and what should we be worried about?

Letís start with the two items mentioned in the article, atrazine and fertilizer. Atrazine is a crop herbicide that has long been used in the production of corn and grain sorghum. Fertilizer is any plant nutrient that is applied to enhance plant or crop growth. The two are very separate. Atrazine is not a part of fertilizers, nor does it come from fertilizers.

Atrazine has been in use for nearly 40 years. Its presence in surface waters, such as Milford Lake and the Republican River, has caused itís use to be restricted. Whether it is or isnít a carcinogen is still hotly debated. But what we do know is, that in very low concentrations, it will restrict microscopic plant growth in bodies of water. This plant growth is needed by microscopic animals at the very bottom of the food chain.

Fortunately, there have been very few tests of water at Milford Lake that have detected levels of atrazine above the EPA required treatment threshold. To remove atrazine from water does require very expensive filtration with activated carbon filters. Ground water is less likely to contain atrazine. Additionally, atrazine is being used less and less in crop production and with further restrictions, will probably cease to be used by the end of this decade.

Fertilizers are another story. The principal nutrients that show up in water are nitrogen and phosphorus. There are naturally occurring levels of many nutrients in all surface and groundwater sources. Some cause quality concerns as with calcium and hard water or sulfur and rotten egg smelling water. Excessive levels of several nutrients, such as lead or nitrates (nitrogen) can be very unhealthy, even fatal, and have virtually no taste in water.

Nutrient contamination in surface waters can come from many sources including; lawn and garden fertilizer use, waster water treatment facilities, agricultural fertilizer use and livestock facilities. Of those four, three are under varying degrees of regulation. The one that isnít, is lawn and garden fertilizer use.

The biggest water quality problem is usually nitrates. High level of nitrates can be fatal to young children and livestock. Nitrates are difficult to remove from water and can only be done so with distillation or reverse osmosis. Again, these are very expensive procedures.

Public water supply systems are tested regularly. I truly donít worry about them. Although there can be water quality problems with public water systems, health problems are rarely seen. But if you have a private well, you need to be testing it annually yourself to make sure that you donít have a problems, including nitrates or bacteria, the two commonest private water health contaminants. For information on testing your own water supply, contact us at the Extension Office, 238-4161 or 119 East 9th St, Junction City, for testing information and bulletins on understanding your water test results.


Return to Agri-Views Home Page

Return to Ag Home Page