It was early June and we had stopped at one of the most popular roadside springs in western Newfoundland to sample the water. The Stephenville "Keyano Motel" spring almost always has a lineup and as we stopped to have a closer look, I noticed a car with Florida licence plates. Its occupants were busy filling water jugs.
"You must really think this water is great, since this is a long way to come for something to drink," I said.
It turned out that Hal and Dulsie Wolfson do live in Florida, but spend their summers in Kippens, where she grew up. They met when there was a military base in Stephenville.
"We got used to drinking this water when Kippens had brown water that didn't taste very good," said Hal. "Now, even though the Kippens tap water comes from wells and tastes better, we still like this spring water."
Joe Doucette from Port au Port West was next in line. He told us that people come from quite a distance to get water from this spring.
"Some people come all the way from Cape St. George, which is over 40 kilometres away, to get water here," he told us as he filled his containers.
Perhaps most surprising was Conrad Benoit's comment, that in order to avoid the crowds at the Keyano Spring, he arrived at 1:30 a.m., only to find 10 people lined up for water.
What makes Newfoundlanders want to get up at 1:30 a.m. and drive many kilometres just to get drinking water?
This piqued our interest, and over the past two summers we have been researching this question with the help of a research grant from the Centre of Environmental Excellence at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook.
One part of the study involved an investigation of spring water use in various communities.
For instance, in Corner Brook, roughly 12 per cent of residents use springs as their main source of drinking water. This jumps to 40 per cent in Steady Brook, 50 per cent in Baie Verte and to a whopping 70 per cent in Stephenville, according to our recent telephone surveys.
So far, we have surveyed 20 communities in western Newfoundland and the rate of spring use is typically 20 to 30 per cent.
Basically, springs occur when water flows out of the ground. Springs may form because of cracks or fractures in the rock or because impermeable rock layers force water to flow out of the ground. Often, in western Newfoundland, springs may occur because of underground drainage patterns associated with limestone cave systems.
In any case, the key requirement for water to be called "spring water" is that the water has flowed through the ground for a certain period of time.
And yet, as I have found in our investigations associated with springs in western Newfoundland, many people use the "rubber hose" rule. That is, if there is a hose coming out of the ground or a stream, then the water must be good to drink. In either case, there may be problems with that assumption.
So far, we have tested 37 springs in western and central Newfoundland for bacteriological contamination and some have been tested repeatedly. We have done 83 tests to date and found that 28 per cent of the time the springs were either contaminated with E. coli and/or had coliform counts that were above the provincial guidelines.
Interestingly, some springs tested fine one week but two weeks later had unsafe levels of coliforms or E. coli. Newfoundland's drinking water standards are counts of 0/100ml for coliform and E. coli.
We found consistently high levels of contamination in three springs near the community of Cox's Cove in the Bay of Islands and in the Robinsons-Jeffries-St. David's area of western Newfoundland. In fact, the worst result we encountered was a spring in St. David's that recorded a coliform count of 75/100 ml and a whopping 60+/100ml for E. coli.
And there were other surprises. The spring at Goodyear's Cove in central Newfoundland, which many people rave about, recorded a count of 23/100 ml for coliform and 10/100 ml for E. coli the one time we sampled it.
Don't do it
None of this surprises Keith Guzzwell, the groundwater resources manager with the Department of Environment and Conservation.
"We don't recommend that people drink from local springs, even those that seem to be pure and clean as they bubble out of the ground," he said.
"We don't know where the water has been and what it might have picked up as it percolates through the ground. We also have areas of the province where both uranium and arsenic are found in the rock, and water filtering through those areas may well pick up some of that material. The bottom line is that since these roadside springs are not treated or tested, we don't recommend people drink from them."
So, why do people drink spring water when their tap water should be fine? Our study reveals that, generally, less than half the population drinks water from the tap. In Stephenville, this falls to just four per cent.
The most frequent reason given for not drinking tap water is that people don't think it's safe. The next most common was that they didn't like the taste. "It tastes like Javex," was a frequent response.
There were also concerns about the colour and smell of tap water.
It's likely the frequent boil orders in the province are also part of the reason why people use springs. Newfoundland has more than 200 boil orders issued for various community water supplies and so spring water may look good by comparison.
However, as Guzzwell points out, "Spring water quality can't be relied on. It might be good one day and contaminated the next, and since no one tests it you can't be sure of what you are drinking.
"We use the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines for determining what the allowable levels are for various minerals and so forth in Newfoundland's drinking water and community water supplies are tested for this," he continued.
"Since we don't test or treat roadside spring water, we can't guarantee its safety."
If you know of springs that people use for drinking water, please contact Keith Nicol at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 709-637-6288.