Southwest Virginia is rich with natural springs. People have long visited here for the mineral baths. But there’s also a long history of people who live here getting their drinking water from these natural springs.
But a new study finds 80% of springs surveyed are contaminated with potentially dangerous bacteria.
In the mountains of southwestern Virginia, with its vertical landscapes and low population density, it’s not always easy or even possible to get water to some homes. It could cost $50,000 or more to hook up to a sewer system, that is, if there is one nearby.
So, people here do what they’ve always done.
“People have been drinking from these springs for a long time," says Virginia Tech Bio engineering professor Leigh-Anne Krometis.
Krometis is considered one of the foremost experts on water quality and availability in Appalachia. She says, in many cases, even people with running water at home prefer getting it from these springs. For some, they just don’t trust the water that comes out of their taps.
“If you have a well, and you have very high iron in your water, or manganese, it may be discolored. Maybe if you've switched from well to a public system, you taste the chlorine and it tastes funny. So, in all these cases, people say, you know, the water coming out of my tap at home, isn't palatable. This (spring) seems natural and it's pretty, and it's coming out of a pretty place in the mountain."
But all that beauty doesn’t mean there’s no harmful bacteria in the water. You can’t see e-coli and you can’t taste it.
“E-coli is what we call an indicator organism. It occurs naturally in the gut of every warm blooded, mammal and bird. So, if you find e-coli it doesn't necessarily mean that it's the kind of e-coli that's going to make you sick. But it's something that should be in the intestine, which means it came out of the intestine, which means that there's poop in the water. So, I always joke with my students that, even little kids, know, you don't drink poop."
Krometis says if a municipal drinking water facility had anywhere near that 80% level of e-coli contamination, they’d shut the plant down and send out a boil water advisory.
Her survey found the springs to be contaminated some of the time. They found that 80% tested positive at least once but there’s no regular testing program in place.
Some local health departments label these natural springs as ‘not for human consumption.’ But for people who’ve grown up with and come to rely on these springs, it’s a cultural thing.
“People have been telling me they value these springs,” says Krometis. “That means that they should be there for them to use. We just have to figure out a way to lower the risk.”
Krometis also teaches water and sanitation in developing countries, “And we're always talking about being culturally sensitive and malleable to what a community wants. So, not just delivering them what we think they should have, but what they'd actually want.” She says sometimes we forget that this would also make a good guiding principle for the U.S. as well.
Krometis would like to see these springs protected with a point-of-use water treatment right there on site to keep them free of dangerous bacteria.
“Because if they're valued by the community, I'd like them to still be available for use, but safe."
At this point, we can’t know if they’re safe. Virginia’s natural springs are considered environmental waters, and not intended to be drinking water, so they’re outside the regulations for water quality.
In many countries around the world, communal springs are common. And there’s even a version of that in this country.
“In some areas in Kentucky that have developed kind of water kiosks that become a place of gathering a place where you can hold farmers’ markets and kind of catch up with people. And so maybe that is something we'd like here. Maybe we need to dream beyond what we originally thought was only possible overseas."
Appalachian Springs have long been a vital resource in this region that people think of as healthy and safe.
“So,” says Krometis, “Finding the investment and kind of the will to develop them. that's the challenge.”
Associate Professor Leigh-Ann-Krometis will be one of the water experts speaking at a Virginia Tech, online event. https://www.facebook.com/events/5071688556422567/
Join us for a discussion with Associate Professor Leigh-Anne Krometis, Extension Associate Erin Ling, and current Water Resources, Policy, and Management undergraduate Isabel “Izzy” Largen to learn about some of the technical and environmental challenges that can make getting safe water to the household tap difficult.
They’ll highlight the ways current Virginia Cooperative Extension and education programs aim to inform and empower Virginia families to ensure their drinking water is safe and satisfying to drink.
Zoom link will be provided upon registration at: