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Simple Steps

Simple Steps To Protect Your Surface and Well Water

When we think of water pollution, many of us think in terms of industrial pollution pouring out of pipes. However, a large amount of contamination comes from a variety of sources and people’s everyday activities. This “non-point” contamination comes from many sources spread over a wide area. Pesticides and fertilizers from yards, gardens and farms, petroleum products from vehicles, and animal waste from pets and livestock can leach into the groundwater or runoff into streams when transported by rainwater. Taken alone, each source may not pose a significant threat to clean water, but when added up over a wider geographic area, the problem can become quite severe and complex. Often, suburban areas add more than rural farm communities due to careless lawn care, poor vehicle maintenance, and outdoor pets.

Rainwater travels through or over a substance, partially dissolving or detaching small particles that are then transported with the rainwater runoff. And where does that water go? Onto your property or your neighbors or into ponds, lakes, streams, and wetlands. Over time, this process can have some negative impacts both on your health and pocketbook as well as on the environment.

So, what are we talking about and what can you do?

Protect Your Well
It is important to protect your drinking water source. As a “rule of thumb”, any activities that might contaminate your well should be at least 100 feet from your well. This includes nearby mixing and storage of pesticides and petroleum products, or livestock confinement areas and septic tanks. A greater distance is recommended if the well is in more permeable soils. Installing anti-back siphon devices on your well and outdoor faucets will further protect your well from potential contamination. If you abandon or temporarily stop using a well, cap it to prevent potential contamination of the groundwater source. If you think you might have a contaminated well or are just curious, you can have your well tested for nitrates, lead, arsenic, and bacterial contamination.

Maintain Septic System
Graphic with chart that tells when to pump your septic tankProperly maintaining your septic system can greatly reduce most potential contamination to your water.  Generally, your septic tank should be pumped every three to five years depending on your septic system and the number of people in your household. Other measures help prolong septic system life and decrease the frequency of pumping: Avoid adding extra water; repair any leaks immediately; do not dispose of household hazardous wastes (petroleum products, pesticides, antifreeze, paint, bleach, etc.) into your septic system because they kill the bacteria that break down human waste. The County Health Department requires proof of inspection and pumping when a property is sold.

We often forget the drainfield, which is an integral part of a functioning septic system. Avoid compacting this area by keeping vehicles and large livestock off of the drainfield area: you might crush the pipes or plug drainholes. Avoid planting deep rooted plants over the drainfield since plant roots can also impair proper functioning.

Divert Rain Water
Keep clean water clean and reduce mud by maintaining gutters and downspouts that divert rainwater away from livestock areas, fertilizer, etc. Concentrated runoff picks up contaminates as it flows over the ground. Just remember that for every 10 foot by 10 foot (100 square feet) of roof surface, one inch of rain will produce 62 gallons of water.

Install grassed waterways and swales
Creating shallow swales covered with vegetation slows runoff which prevents soil erosion and keeps silt and pesticides from reaching streams. These swales also help water infiltrate into the ground.

Practice low input gardening
Reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers by planting cover crops on larger areas before heavy fall and winter rainfalls. These crops utilize some of the nutrients, such as nitrogen. Incorporating these cover crops into the soil before spring planting releases the nutrients for the next crop. When in doubt, test your soil! Soil labs will provide a fertilizer recommendation that matches your soil fertility. This prevents excess application that could contaminate wells and water bodies. This will also save you money on fertilizers.

Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices
Certain practices reduce your reliance on potential contaminants.

  • Use pest resistant plant varieties in landscaping.
  • Use native plants.
  • Determine pest levels before using pesticides.
  • Use biological pest control.
  • Choose pesticides that are the least persistent and least toxic. Spot spray.
  • Handle pesticides safely and apply them accurately to reduce pesticide contamination. More is not better when using herbicides and pesticides and overapplication often reduces effectiveness.

Cover manure piles
Those with livestock should cover manure piles to prevent the leaching and runoff of concentrated nutrients, salts, and bacteria into wells and water bodies. This can be as simple as covering manure with a tarp or building a small shed. Composting wastes reduces the volume of the manure and stabilizes nutrients into a form that does not as easily leach and runoff.


For more information contact

Link to pdf on Simple Steps to protect your Surface and well water


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Terry Koper
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WSU Clark County Extension
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Adapted by Doug Stienbarger, WSU Extension Clark County, and Cindy Stienbarger, Clark County Public Works (November 2003).


  • Adams, Edward B. 1992 Farming Practices for Groundwater Protection, EB1716. Pullman: Washington State University.
  • Easy BMP, Roof Water Diversion. 1995. Everett: Snohomish Conservation District.
  • A Homeowners Guide to Septic Systems, EPA-832-B-02-005. 2002. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency.

Living on the Land is sponsored in partnership by WSU Extension Clark County, the Clark County Clean Water Program, and the Clark Conservation District.


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