Thursday, January 31, 2013

Virginia Extension -Help and Information for Private Well Owners

I spoke with Erin James Ling who is the coordinator of both the Virginia Household Water Quality Program, VAHWQP, and the Virginia Master Well Owners Network, VAMWON, as part of her job in the Biological Systems Engineering department at Virginia Tech. Erin works under Dr. Brian Benham, who re-launched the Virginia Household Water Quality Program in 2007 with a National Institute for Food and Agriculture, NIFA, grant. The VAHWQP uses the grant to sponsor and subsidize drinking water clinics held throughout the state where homeowners can get their well water analyzed for 14 chemical and bacteriological contaminants and cost only $49 (there are locations where the cost of the analysis is fully underwritten by the county extension office). The program consists of two meetings- one to get instructions and test kits, and the other a month later to get results and provide interpretation and recommendations. Samples are dropped off at the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office sponsoring the program and driven to Virginia Tech for analysis. The NIFA grant and trained extension volunteers have allowed Virginia to hold and subsidize the cost of the analysis for the water clinics in a dozen or more counties each year. 

Erin joined the program in 2008 as the coordinator of the programs (which is about half her job) and with additional funding for 2013 will be able to devote more of her time to developing and expanding the programs. The focus has been primarily on training extension agents and running the water clinics, but Erin want to move the program beyond that in the future. Since its inception in 1989 drinking water clinics have been conducted in 87 counties across the state analyzing 16,000 water samples. Since the re-launch of the program in 2008 3,000 household samples have been analyzed and results confidentially returned to participants. The program retains the analytical data on a county by county basis, but all identifying information like address or well owner are not kept with the data. The county water analysis data and questionnaire information is only accumulated to develop a statistical database on groundwater and household water quality by county and may someday be one of the more detailed private water supply quality databases in the nation- a database that can be mined for patterns in water quality, geology and well systems. In addition, the demographic information could help to develop better messaging to reach more well owners more effectively.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension was set up to meet the needs of rural landowners and brings the university knowledge and reliable information resources to rural people through the extension agents. As the rural population has changed, the services offered by the extension programs have evolved beyond the farm agents (like Kimbel, Hank Kimbel of Green Acres) to master gardeners, and protection of groundwater and health of Virginia private well owners. Erin with a master’s degree in Environmental Pollution Control and a second master’s degree in Rural Sociology is uniquely qualified to develop programs to build awareness of the risks and responsibilities of private water well ownership and develop programs to communicate technical information to the public.  The Household Water Quality Program and VAMWON program provide information, education, and tools that you can use to improve the quality of your life, help you determine if you need a water treatment system and if needed what system is right for you. The VAMWON consists of Extension agentsand screened volunteers trained in the proper design, management, andmaintenance of private water supply systems (springs, wells, and cisterns).VAMWON trained extension agents organize and conduct the county-based drinking water clinics and serve as a local resource for clientele with household water quality concerns. The schedule of water clinics for 2013 is available at this link.

The programs Erin coordinates are linking rural health with water quality information. She plans to expand the VAMWON program to increase capacity and reach and include septic systems. Maintaining septic systems and Alternative on-site sewage systems is really important to health. Household wastewater is loaded with disease-causing bacteria and viruses, as well as high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. If a septic system is well-maintained and working properly, it will remove most of these pollutants. Insufficiently treated sewage from septic systems can cause groundwater contamination that can result in contamination of private water wells which can spread disease and impact household health. Understanding and maintaining your septic system and well and regularly testing your well water quality are the best way to protect the quality of your drinking water and the health of your family.

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