The village of Portland, nestled along the Rideau Canal midway between Kingston and Ottawa, is a bustling summer tourist hub.
Come December, Portland slips into sleepy hibernation.
This year, the sleep will be a bit more fitful for villagers who recently learned septic run-off and traces of pharmaceuticals may be infiltrating their underground drinking water supply.
The source of this concern is a report from a five-year study that found E. coli and coliform in eight test wells drilled around the village.
It also revealed the presence of pharmaceuticals, many typically used for treating farm animals, but also compounds found in human psychiatric medications for the treatment of depression and hypertension.
The contamination, it seems, is penetrating the soil uphill from Portland, seeping into bedrock aquifers and coursing through underground rock seams until reaching the village, eventually making its way into the Rideau Canal.
Two weeks ago, about 40 villagers attended a meeting hosted by provincial environment ministry staff, the district health unit’s chief medical officer Paula Stewart, and one of the main researchers behind the report, Kent Novakowski, a Queen’s University hydrogeologist.
The meeting was long overdue.
The field work on the study, funded in part by the ministry, had taken place from 2005 to 2009.
Yet, according to an agreement, researchers were to hold regular public meetings to explain their work and findings.
That never happened. In fact, it was almost by chance that the people of Portland came to realize their drinking water might be at risk, when the report on five years of research was published this spring in a U.S. hydrogeological publication.
The report made its way to Portland resident Peter Hannah, who was shocked by the findings and alarming tone.
It concluded, for instance, that authorities should “assume the water supply is contaminated based on the setting and educate the well owners on the potential risks to the consumption of the water.”
At Hannah’s insistence, and that of Rideau Lakes Twp. mayor Ron Holman, residents of Portland finally got their well-water education two weeks ago, five years overdue, in Hannah’s estimation.
At the meeting, they were assured that, despite the warnings in the report, the village drinking water was safe.
It was explained that the test wells were designed to capture wide samples of water, while their domestic wells would be tapped into just one safer source.
Over and over, villagers were told it was their responsibility to ensure the safety of their wells by taking advantage of the free testing offered by the health unit.
This is all good advice.
But as it turns out, Portland is not unique.
Novakowski told the gathering that test wells were drilled into bedrock aquifers in Portland and in Newfoundland and British Columbia. All turned up the same results.
It would seem, therefore, that if our drinking water comes from a well, we should be asking how safe it is.
For Hannah and Holman, the genie is out of the water bottle.
If the purpose of the study was to explore the risk to domestic wells from agricultural and septic system discharge — as it was clearly stated — they want the job finished.
“It’s quite clear that this isn’t a condition that just affects Portland,” said Holman. “It’s an issue that the world has to start paying attention to.”