Few rural homeowners test their private wells

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Private well owners are not required by the EPA to monitor and test their water supply. So, according to a recent survey by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, only 16 percent of rural wells are tested for contaminates each year and nearly 50 percent of them are considered contaminated above health standards. (Submitted photo)

By Correne Martin

You can’t usually taste, smell or see the elements in your drinking water. But you can detect them with a test. However, only 16 percent of private well owners conduct tests for contaminants each year, as recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Natural Resources. While the EPA mandates that public water supplies are monitored, tested and reported regularly for pollutants such as lead, arsenic and nitrate nitrogen, evaluations for systems serving 25 or fewer homes are the responsibilities of the homeowners—or nearly 1.7 million Wisconsin residents who use private wells.

“One of the challenges for people is, if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind,” Bret Tangley, National Water Quality Association president and owner of Sterling Water Culligan in Eau Claire. “Until you have a problem, you’re just overwhelmed with life, and you’re not always thinking about testing your water.”

A report by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism said up to 47 percent of rural wells are considered to be contaminated above health standards set out in the Safe Drinking Water Act. According to Tangley, that’s 940,000 wells around the state. With no requirement for private well owners to test, the study found that, as of 2008-09, about one-third of all the state’s homeowners have never tested their wells. The only hangup for consumers owning private wells might be that safe drinking water results are required for pump work, home mortgages and real estate transfers.

“Some of the contaminants (if left unchecked and in existence at high concentrations) are linked to health ailments down the road, which typically show up in immune deficient people such as the elderly, young children and pregnant women,” Tangley explained.

Many of the substances found in people’s drinking water are organically occurring compounds found in nearly every watershed. In addition to lead, arsenic and nitrate (and even fluoride), impurities might include iron, radon, coliform bacteria, pH (acidity) and more. A basic water analysis, offered by most water service providers, tests for properties like hardness, iron, pH and nitrate, while more advanced analysis, for compounds like radon, requires the tests be sent in for certified lab examination.

The cost of the test varies from free to $80, depending on the contaminant. Homeowners are encouraged to contact a reputable water service provider and, Tangley advised, make sure they’re backed by an EPA-certified lab, “a professional who is state-certified and sells state-certified products.”

“You can also call your county health department and they can either come assist you or you can go get the bottle,” he added. “It’s easy. Basically, you rinse the bottle a few times, fill it up and return it for testing as fast as possible. The faster you get it there, the more accurate the test numbers are.”

Test results are usually available within five business days, according to the WQA.

“Testing on a yearly basis is important for that simple peace of mind,” stated Mark Kraemer, owner of Kraemer’s Water Store in Richland Center, which services Richland, Crawford, Grant, Dubuque (Iowa) and part of Sauk Counties. “You should know what’s there and what you’re drinking.”

Analysis should be done more often if you know your well is old, finished in a shallow aquifer, or when a previous test indicates water quality problems, according to the DNR.

Once a homeowner chooses to test their private well and the process is complete, Tangley said they generally want to know what’s in their water and what to do about it.

“If you get a bad test, it’s not the end of the world. It just means you need to have a treatment solution installed, and probably for an extended period of time,” he commented. “Most solutions are affordable. They’re not a huge drain on families.”

Treatment cost depends upon the impurity and whether the homeowner chooses to treat the entire house or just at the point of the tap.

“Only 1 percent of the water in your home is consumed; the rest is used in washing, cleaning and bathing. So testing is really customized to the budget. It ranges in price; many solutions can be rented for a dollar a day,” Tangley clarified, noting that treatment alternatives can oftentimes be installed within a few days of testing.

Nichols Water Service, in Prairie du Chien, doesn’t treat bacterial problems in water, but they can filter issues such as sand, rust or other sediment.

“We can take care of odor or taste,” Owner Todd Nichols stated, recommending dealing with plumbers in the area or the well companies themselves for treatment.

Water experts across Wisconsin recommend regular testing of well water and using point-of-use filtration technology that is certified by the National Sanitation Foundation for the removal of certain contaminants. Reverse osmosis technology is also an option, since the filter membrane can filter particles as small as one micron.

Tangley expounded, “The maximum contaminant level for nitrate is 10 parts per million, for example. So, say your water is at seven out of 10. Some consumers might be OK with that, since it’s below the threshold. But others may say they don’t even want seven.”

“Usually nitrate is an indicator that you’re getting other contaminants in your water, like atrazine and other pesticides and herbicides,” Kraemer added. “Agricultural contaminants have become very common.”

He also pointed out that problems among private wells vary by location. He reported that the Tomah area typically registers low pH levels, while the eastern side of the state has high levels of radon. He said southwest Wisconsin isn’t greatly unique to other regions, except for the consistent hardness of its water.

“Usually, when you start to get out of town, hardness is a big problem, because of the landscape,” Nichols said, noting that two neighbors can have varying degrees of contaminants, depending on the age and depth of their wells.

Interestingly, Kraemer said levels of fuel, salt from roads and also medications are showing up in people’s drinking water these days.

“People excrete medication,” he said. “So now, [the industry] has to think about how they’re processing our sewage because our water treatment plants don’t treat for that.”

For in-town residents concerned about their municipality’s drinking water, Kraemer said, you can request a breakdown of what’s in your water supply from your city or village office.



Deciding what to test for

Your local environmental health specialist, health department or drinking water laboratory can help determine which tests will provide the best health-related information, which may include these:

Total coliform bacteria—All private wells should be tested for total coliform bacteria at least yearly. Wet times of the year (spring and fall) are good times to test, as well as any time water changes taste, odor or appearance.
Nitrate nitrogen—All private wells should be tested for nitrate every year or two, or more often if nitrate has been found at elevated levels by previous testing.
Arsenic—Every well should be tested for arsenic at least once, or more often if a second test shows the level has changed.
Other contaminants—Sometimes, other contaminants occur in private water supplies. The need for additional testing depends on your well's location, depth and construction, and land use in your area. For example, test your supply for the components of volatile organic chemicals if your well is near fuel tanks or a commercial or industrial area. If your well is near an area where agricultural chemicals are stored, transferred, mixed or applied, you should consider testing for ag chemicals.
Fluoride—If children under 18 drink the water, a test for natural levels of fluoride will give your dentist useful information when considering fluoride supplements. Excess fluoride can cause problems with developing teeth in children and discoloration of tooth enamel. Please keep in mind that any well which is shallow in depth or finished in shallow bedrock is more vulnerable to contamination than a well completed in a deeper, protected aquifer. If your well meets one or both of these conditions, there may be additional tests you should perform.
Provided by the Iowa DNR

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