Thursday, December 27, 2012

Prince William Health District Offers Essential Services to Well Owners

Last week I went down to Woodbridge to meet with Marcus Haynes, who is an Environmental Health Specialist with the Prince William Health District and the “water and well guy” for the county.  The Prince William Health District is a branch office of the Virginia Department of Health that administers the health related laws throughout the state. Marcus is part of a six person team located in Building 5 at the Prince William County Complex in Woodbridge that administers the health laws and regulations relating to private water supplies and sewage systems, water well construction regulations, and septic and alternative on-site sewage system construction and operation regulations. In addition, the PW Health District provides help and guidance for private well and traditional and alternative septic systems.

Marcus has been with the PW Health District since 1977, starting on the job the day Prince William County first implemented county wide well construction regulations. Those regulations were very progressive for their time and quite similar to the current sate wide regulation implemented in 1992 and still in effect today. Through experience, additional training and certification, Marcuse has an almost encyclopedic knowledge about the groundwater in our county and water wells in general. He knows the fracture density and thus groundwater availability in all of the county and thus knows where well yields are a problem. In years past he worked in conjunction with the US Geological Survey to develop their study of the extent of chlorinated solvent contamination in the Culpeper groundwater basin in Prince William County from the historic operations of IBM Corp.  
From 1970 to 1975, IBM used chlorinated solvents to degrease electrical components at its plant in Manassas, Virginia. Spills and poor disposal and containment practices contaminated the groundwater. The PW Health District was instrumental in identifying that the contamination had reached the (now abandoned) public supply wells and private wells serving about 32,000 people. Ultimately, IBM's funded the study of the groundwater (1), installed monitoring wells and under RCRA (federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) removed the contaminated soil and contained and/ or eliminated the contaminated groundwater. IBM connected homes with contaminated wells to Prince William County's water supply system which obtained other sources for water supply. It is hoped that these days pollution problems of this magnitude will be prevented by the modern web of environmental and health regulations, but it was with the help of the PW Health District that the problem was identified.

The mission of the PW Health District has remained consistent over the years; to protect the Public Health and the water resources of the Commonwealth. However the understanding of the interconnection of surface water, groundwater, and the increase in population and the density within the county of on-site private water and sewage treatment systems has changed the emphasis and nature of their work. There was a time when the homeowner was more directly involved in the construction of their water wells and septic/ on-site sewage systems and Marcus and the Environmental Health team did all certifications and dealt with the homeowner directly. These days many of these steps have been outsourced to the private sector while staff addresses problems, VPDES permit system and critical issues. Though each well requires a permit, the homeowner can have the well driller act as their agent and site visit, inspections and sampling can also be performed by the private sector. In subdivisions like mine, the well and water systems were built by four different subcontractors and the coordination depended on the interest, knowledge and skill of the project foreman. The homeowner is removed from the process until there is a problem and then lacking any background or knowledge the homeowner does not know where to turn. If you have a problem with a private water or waste system, call the PW Health District. If you have a concerns or want background information you might call me at the Virginia Master Well Owners Network for information.

Marcus would like to see the homeowner’s relationship with the PW Health District begin before the even purchasing a home. Information on all private wells drilled in the county after 1977 are in their files. The PW Health District has detailed files on over 20,000 wells. Before buying a home with a well you should have the well drillers log in hand. The “Water Well Completion Report” can tell you the age of the well, the depth of the well and casing, the approximate water zones and the yield at completion. These are the most basic facts needed to evaluate a well and water system.   The best place for all homeowners with private drinking wells to start is to call or email the PW Health District and request a copy of the “Water Well Completion Report” and ask if there is other information in the file. You should also take a look at the brochure “TenTips for Managing Your Private Well Water Supply.” Prince William Office of Internet Technology is working to computerize the Environmental Health Records in the GIS system, but for now you will have to call and ask them to email (or fax) you the information. Marcus’ phone number is (703) 792-6343 and his email is (He is pretty responsive to routine requests, but water well problems move to the top of the pack and get fast turnaround. I have waited on hold while he has scanned and emailed me a copy of the “Water Well Completion Report” for a VAMWON client in stationed in Afghanistan with a water well in the county that had stopped working.)

When a well is drilled the only water sampling that takes place is for a coliform bacteria test. There are many chemicals and naturally occurring contaminants that could make water unpalatable or unhealthy. Before buying a home you need to perform a more extensive testing of the water. For this you can sample and test using a private certified laboratory or you can have the Health District sample your water for you. The Health District charges $80-85 for the first chemical or contaminant and $20 for each additional contaminant. The Virginia Household Water Quality Program recommends that water be analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria (if coliform is present) and any industrial or agricultural chemicals that may be of concern at the particular location. That can add up to quite a bill, but a home is probably the most expensive purchase you will ever make- verify the quality of the water.

Marcus also recommends that before buying a home with a private well you verify the capacity and the condition of the well. His rule of thumb is 5 gallons/minute is a safe yield to supply on-demand water for a typical household, but homes can have much lower yielding wells and still provide adequate water at least sometimes. Be aware that over time the yield of a well falls and what was an adequate well 20 years ago may not be now. Groundwater enters a well through fractures in the bedrock and overtime debris, particles, and minerals clog up the fractures and the well production falls. Marcus said that the drop in water recharge rate could be 40-50% or more over 20-30 years. A low yielding well might have a functional life of only 25 years. So, if you are buying a home with an older well having a well driller perform an accurate assessment of the well’s capacity would be important. A well recharge can be estimated by running water from the pump and measuring the top of the water level in the well. If it does not change, then the well recharges faster than the pump rate. If the level is falling then the each foot in a typical 6 inch cased well represents about 1.5 gallons.  A more accurate rate to determine the recharge rate is to use a compressor to blow all the water (and deposits at the bottom of the well) out of the well and time how long it takes the well column to recharge. The well driller can also examine the condition of the casing, wiring, pump and the well components in the house. 

A private well owner is responsible for their water supply. The PW Health District is a treasure, providing incredible expertise and valuable services for well and septic system owners throughout the county. 

(1)    Nelms, D.L., and Richardson, D.L., 1990, Geohydrology and the occurrence of volatile-organic compounds in ground water, Culpeper basin of Prince William County, Virginia: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report. This report funded by IBM is still a fabulous resource to understanding the groundwater in Prince William County. 

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