Private drinking water wells serve more than a fifth of Virginia’s population or 1.7 million residents. Virginia created the Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) to provide affordable water testing and education about private water wells to those residents of the Commonwealth. Extension Offices hold drinking water clinics and provide information to assist private well owners in understanding and maintaining their wells.
The quality and safety of private wells are not regulated
under Federal nor, in most cases, state law. In Virginia regulations control
only construction and the absence of bacteria at the time of a well’s completion.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Safe Drinking Water Act does not
regulate individual households. As a result, individual homeowners are responsible
for maintaining their own water supply and ensuring the quality of the water
for their family.
The Virginia Household Water Quality Program was, originally created in 1989, was relaunched in 2007 with a USDA grant. In 2011 the program was expanded under another USDA grant to subsidize testing, quantify bacteria, add metals, and begin research out of Virginia Tech. Now the program is self-sustaining with clinics held in 91 of the 96 counties in 2021. The analysis is done by the Virginia Tech laboratory and research utilizing the data is being pursued by graduate students.
In all the Virginia Household Water Quality Program clinics the water samples are analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria, and last year cost $65 in Prince William County. These are mostly naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. Though not an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells.
Though about 600,000 of Virginia households with 1,700,000 residents or 22% of the Virginia population have private wells, only around 2,785 households chose to participate in the Virginia Household Water Quality Program clinic in 2021 and may not be representative of all private drinking water wells in the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, the data collected over the past 15 years is the one of the largest databases on private drinking water wells available. Well water quality is driven by geology, well construction and condition, nearby sources of contamination, and, within the home, water treatment devices and composition of plumbing materials.
|from Virginia Tech: contaminants found above the SDWA limit|
Overall, the statewide sampling last year found that just under 40% of the wells have coliform bacteria present, and almost 6% have E. coli bacteria. Though 22% of wells were found to have acidic water (low pH) about 6% of homes have first flush lead levels above the EPA safe drinking water standard maximum contaminant level for lead and copper. Lead and copper leach into water primarily because of corrosion of plumbing and well components but can also result from flaking of scale from brass fittings and well components unrelated to corrosion. Copper and lead predominately come from the pipes. Over time older pipes and fixtures corrode or simply wear away and the lead and other corrosion material (like rust) is carried to the drinking water. Time and water do cause corrosion, but this can be aggravated by the pH of the water or other changes in water chemistry. The amount of lead corroded from metal plumbing including faucets with brass interiors generally increases with increasing water corrosiveness.
About 36% of households have elevated sodium exceeding the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act limit. This could be a result saltwater infiltration from natural or man-made sources (like road salt) or could indicate that water softeners are adding too much sodium to the water. Of the 2,785 participants in 2021, 41% report that they NEVER tested their water before and 32% had tested only once (presumably at purchase). About 43% of participants have participated in the VAHWQP clinic before. Virginia Tech recommends annual testing of well water to make sure it is safe to drink, and you have the appropriate treatment system(s).