Private fountains are widely used by homeowners to irrigate their garden during the warm and dry season. “There are two fountains for every three gardens,” estimates Harald Gülzow. The qualified physicist is active in VSR water protection, which was founded as a merger of several citizens’ initiatives under the name “Association for the Protection of the Rhine and its tributaries”. Today, the non-profit association is committed to protecting bodies of water and groundwater throughout Germany.
The VSR team is on the road in many federal states with its bright yellow mobile laboratory between April and October to provide information about the quality of the well water on site and to take samples. They are then analyzed by experts in a laboratory in Geldern, Rhineland. It is about the nitrate, acid and salt content. You can also have the well water tested for bacteria, iron, phosphate, halogenated hydrocarbons, nitrite and manganese and find out from the VSR report whether it is suitable for watering vegetables, filling the paddling pool or drinking water for animals.
Gülzow is concerned about the nitrate pollution of the groundwater, which has been very high for years, especially in parts of Franconia, Lower Saxony, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Rhineland-Palatinate. This is shown by a look at the nitrate map on the VSR water protection website. There you will also find precise information on many districts, although the informative value for the individual garden is limited – even with neighboring wells there can be large differences, depending on the depth from which the water is pumped. The basis for the data presented on www.vsr-gewaesserschutz.de are the measured values of the examined garden fountains determined by the association.
What role does agriculture play?
Every sixth well has nitrate values that are too high, which are above the limit of 50 milligrams per liter of the German Drinking Water Ordinance. Depending on the level of concentration, well water should not be readily used for watering, paddling pools or ponds. The acidity is determined by measuring the pH value. In large parts of Lower Saxony in particular, the values are below 5.5. The acidic water with a high aluminum content can cause massive damage to plants, and it is not suitable for fish and garden ponds. “There are filters that can be installed, but the financial outlay is usually disproportionate to the benefit,” says Gülzow.
The whole thing is not only a problem for the affected garden owner – acidic or nitrate-polluted groundwater gets into rivers and streams and reduces biodiversity there. For the association, it is therefore important not only to provide individual advice, but also to draw attention to the consequences for the environment and to campaign for political changes to protect the groundwater.
Currently, agriculture with its factory farming and the associated large quantities of liquid manure and the heavy use of mineral fertilizers is responsible for the high nitrate content and the acidification of the groundwater. On the other hand, where organic farming is widespread, there are significantly lower loads. Aren’t garden owners themselves responsible for high nitrate levels because they use more fertilizer? The VSR experts come to a different conclusion: In cities like Berlin or Duisburg, the pollution is significantly lower than in regions with a lot of conventional agriculture.
“To conserve water and use it optimally, it makes sense to water or sprinkle early in the morning.”
If germs are detected in the water sample, Gülzow and his colleagues provide information on what can be done to prevent the well water from being contaminated. Instead of channeling rainwater into the well, it should seep away through a hollow in the garden. If there are trees near the well whose roots may have damaged the well shaft, the shaft should be checked and any cracks sealed. If there was flooding due to heavy rainfall, it is advisable to pump several cubic meters of water out of the well and let it seep away at a greater distance in order to flush the system.
Well construction companies can be commissioned with the inspection and possible rehabilitation. According to Gülzow, the garden owner can also do a lot to protect the groundwater. This starts with the careful handling of well water. “In order to save water and use it optimally, it makes sense to water or sprinkle early in the morning, when the ground isn’t that warm and the water doesn’t evaporate that quickly. Many people don’t realize that,” says Gülzow.
Tap water should be avoided if possible, as it is far too valuable for the garden. “Sprinkling the lawn with water from the tap should be banned,” says Gülzow. And he calls for the much greater unsealing of surfaces so that rainwater does not flow into the sewage system but can get into the groundwater – which is particularly important because of the ever longer dry periods and increasing groundwater extraction by farms, so that the groundwater level does not drop any further.
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