• Photo: Flickr/fox_kiyo

If you look closely at the countryside surrounding Elmvale, Ont., a tiny village about 90 minutes north of Toronto, you’ll see the natural and ever-gushing wells of the aptly named Springwater township. The locals have always known that their water is clean, but they’re only beginning to understand just how clean.

William Shotyk, a Toronto-born environmental geochemist who is a professor at the Institute of Earth Sciences at Germany’s Heidelberg University, has been testing this water for more than 20 years. In his new Elmvale Groundwater Observatory, a small shack just north of town, Shotyk has built two artesian wells — one stainless steel and the other highdensity polyethylene — to ensure that flowing water doesn’t pick up impurities on its way to the surface. He even collects his samples within a cabinet of filtered air to avoid airborne contamination.

“The water contains less lead, by at least a factor of five, than the cleanest ice layers from the Arctic,” says Shotyk — an amazing comparison, because those Arctic samples are from 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, long before the onset of atmospheric lead pollution.

To explain how it could possibly get this clean, Shotyk takes me to an old well closer to town. We park beside the highway and walk gingerly along the icy ditch toward a rusty old tap. “There’s no pump here,” he says, “and in the old days, this was a gusher.” As cars whip by, he reaches down and drinks out of his hands. “It’s delicious!”

The initial test results had some scientist thinking that this shallow groundwater must be ancient, but Shotyk has proven it’s not more than 50 years old. “It’s the dirtiest rainwater in Ontario’s history,” he insists, because it fell mid-century, when atmospheric lead pollution was at its worst due to heavy use of gasoline additives. He laughs and points at the tap: “That rainwater is this. It’s this!”

From the Elmvale Clay Plain, where we are now, Shotyk points to the Simcoe Uplands to the northeast. The elevation difference — and the pressure from rainwater slowly trickling down — keeps these springs perpetually flowing. The higher land, a mix of rocks and sand dumped by glacial retreat, is a porous landscape, allowing groundwater to reach the aquifer below. “The water will go down until it can’t go anymore,” says Shotyk, “and then it will start to move horizontally, going toward Georgian Bay.”

This low-lying region is made up of fine-grained sediments — thick layers of clay which protect the underlying aquifer from contamination. In the Simcoe Uplands, chemically reactive soils containting iron oxide, aluminum oxide and manganese oxide act “like a sponge for contaminants,” explains Shotyk. Organic matter from plant growth and bacteria along tree roots also latch on to toxic metals, such as lead and other impurities. Taken together, these soil components combine to effectively filter water.

Shotyk takes another big drink, and so do I. “People buy water in plastic bottles,” he says. “This water is cleaner than any bottled water.” Beyond being wasteful, he says, plastic bottles eventually leach harmful elements, such as antimony, regardless of how clean the source water. “Either I’m from another planet,” he says, “or there’s a gap in understanding here.”

In 2007, Shotyk started the annual Elmvale Water Festival. This year’s festival, set for Oct. 7 and 8 to coincide with the town’s fall fair, will again feature hands-on activities for children, other exhibits and all the pure spring water you can drink. “It creates awareness and also appreciation,” says Shotyk. “With that comes protection.”