Impact of soil on water quality is more than meets the eye

One of the most important factors in water quality, taste and availability is soil. In fact, most of the water we use every day makes its way to our faucets by first moving through soil.

When Lewis and Clark traveled throughout Missouri, using the Missouri River as a highway, the water they drank was indeed from the river. Today, almost no one would think of taking a sip from the fast, flowing, murky brown water. While a reluctance to drink from the river might be easily attributable to the visible dirt, there is more to water quality than meets the eye.

Professor Stephen Anderson at the University of Missouri studies soil physics, and has spent decades studying water movement in soils, which can result in rivers, streams or any body of water.

“If you see water in a stream or a lake, where did it come from?” Anderson asked. “It basically came from the land, or the soil. It is not instantaneous, but it takes a while to get there. When you think of the stream, where is that water in the stream from, it could come from snowmelt etc. A portion of that stream is runoff, like the water is shedding.”

Without soil, consequentially, there would be zero life on Earth. This is because soil is a buffer. It is a sponge with tiny pores that roots use to soak up water. Anderson explains how important soil is by recalling the drought of 2012. Rain was scarce, yet trees and grasses still survived. They survived because the roots sucked up the water from the soil’s pores, and the plants also adapted to the harsh environment.

“Soil water is always changing, it is very dynamic, think of the cyclical pattern,” Anderson explained. “When you talk about hydrology you have to talk about it in a yearly basis, because you go into several cycles. Where in spring there is an abundance of water, then there is summer when plants require more water.”

Some worry that water contamination can occur from the soil or nearby storage units of chemicals. For example, a river floods into a floodplain, where farmers grow their crops. The pesticides in the soil or in the storage tanks would be carried down the river to the next filtration plant. However, the U.S. is advanced in its methods of water processing. If a municipal water plant were to pull this water out and filter it, by law they must do water testing.

“Drinking water standards are very different,” Anderson said. “In more developed countries they have better treatment of the water, and other countries you must be very careful.”

Drinking water in Columbia, Missouri, comes from wells that tap into an aquifer south of the city where groundwater and water from the Missouri River flow, according to the City of Columbia website..

“All Columbia water is pretty chlorinated,” said Linda Libert, water treatment specialist at EcoWater Systems, a company that sells home and commercial water softeners and purification systems. “We put it through it through coconut shell charred carbon, which reduces all chemicals that get put into the water. It absorbs it at entry, then it goes through a sediment filter to remove the iron, and we also remove the calcium out of the water.”

Many people prefer to have chemicals and minerals filtered out of their water not only because of taste and health concerns, but also because of residue water with high mineral concentrations can leave on appliances, sinks and tubs.

“With the three chemicals and minerals we remove with the top-of-our-line unit, many would call us for help,” Libert said. “Their appliances may suffer from a calcium buildup or they call us because they have iron issues in their water, which can discolor a toilet bowl for instance. Another common purpose for calling us is skin issue(s) that are related to the water they use. Heavy chlorinated water can cause a burning sensation to people with eczema.”

Regardless of quality issues, the quantity of available water is also becoming a cause for concern.

“A lot of people forget water is one of those non-renewable resources,” said Kaitlin Westfall, senior MU student studying biological engineering with an emphasis in environmental studies. “We have no way to create it in a laboratory. All the water on this earth is all we have. We need to find ways to protect the water, and keep it clean so it isn’t contaminated for future use.”

Erica Overfelt

About the Author Erica Overfelt

I am Erica Overfelt, a freshman pursuing a science and agricultural journalism degree with a minor in international studies. I do not have a background with this particular major; however, it is something I am passionate about. I was the sports and features editor for the Red & Black Student Led Newspaper at Jefferson City High School. It is a great feeling being in an environment where everyone has the same aspirations and goals for this semester of learning and writing for Corner Post. I look to broaden my knowledge in not only journalism, but everyday skills you can learn by being in a collaborative work space.