Sunday, July 24, 2022

You are Responsible for Your Well Water

Although the majority of the United States' population gets its drinking water from pubic systems, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, estimates that more than 23 million households rely on private water supply system (i.e. wells, springs, and cisterns) for drinking water. Most of these are private wells. My own home is supplied with water from a drilled well. EPA does not regulate private drinking water systems- your on your own in making sure the water in your home is safe to drink.  Many states have well regulations, the vast majority of which are construction standards for new wells.

The concentration of private wells is not evenly distributed throughout the country, obviously private wells tend to be in rural or semi-rural areas. The Census Bureau stopped collecting information specific to private well use in 1990, so much of the national data is extrapolated from 1990. Virginia Tech reports that over 22% of the Virginia’s population or 1.7 million people are dependent of private drinking water wells for their drinking water.

The quality and safety of private domestic wells, are not regulated under Federal or, in most cases, state law. In Virginia only the construction is regulated and wells are only required to demonstrate the absence of bacteria, the most basic form of potability at the completion of the well construction process. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) does not regulate individual households.

As a result, individual homeowners are solely responsible for maintaining their domestic well systems and for any routine water-quality monitoring that may take place. Just because your water appears clear doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to drink. You cannot taste bacterial contamination from human and animal waste, nor taste nitrate/ nitrite contamination. Many chemical contaminants cannot be tasted or smelled at levels that can impact your health. Since bacterial contamination cannot be detected by taste, smell, or sight, all drinking water wells should be tested at least annually for Coliform bacteria and E Coli. Testing is the only way to detect contamination in your water.

In the past it was not recommended to test your well, it is now widely recommended (by the department of health and University Extension programs) that private well owners test their wells annually (at least for bacteria), yet the vast majority of well owners still do not. Private well owners often lack a basic understanding of the groundwater that supplies the wells and the mechanical components of their well systems and turn a blind eye to maintaining their water systems.  

Groundwater comes from rain, water and snow melt percolating into the ground. Typically, the deeper the well the further away is the water origination and the older the water. The groundwater age is a function of local geology, the amount of precipitation and the rate that water is pumped out of the aquifer. Geology also determines the ease with which water and contaminants can travel through an aquifer; microorganisms in the soil and from wildlife and spilled chemicals or contaminated runoff can travel into groundwater supplies through cracks, fissures, and other pathways of opportunity like fractured rock systems. The land surface through which groundwater is recharged must remain open and uncontaminated to maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater.

The quality of your water will be determined of the source of the groundwater, the ability of your local geology to protect or impact your aquifer and the absence or presence of a potential local source of contamination. First of all let me say that according to the US EPA actual events of groundwater contamination have historically been rare and typically do not occur at levels likely to pose significant health concerns. This fact is the basis of the EPA and state health departments’ acceptance of private and unmonitored use of groundwater for drinking water purposes for a significant portion of the United States. However, as population density increases and we use more and more chemicals, pesticides and drugs, there are more opportunities to contaminate our groundwater. Because I am a retired environmental engineer I tend to focus on threats to the groundwater and worry about my groundwater quality more than most.

The most common sources of pollution to groundwater supplies come from two categories; naturally occurring ones and those caused by human activities. Naturally occurring contamination are produced from the underlying soil and rock geology. Microorganisms in the soil can travel into groundwater supplies through cracks, fissures, and other pathways. Nitrates and nitrites from the nitrogen compounds in the soil can also enter the groundwater. From the underlying rocks radionuclides and heavy metals can enter the groundwater. There are areas with natural occurring arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, selenium and fluoride. While many natural contaminants such as iron, sulfate, and manganese are not considered serious health hazards, they can give drinking water an unpleasant taste, odor, or color.

Human activities can also introduce contaminants into the groundwater. Bacteria and nitrates can be caused by human and animal waste. Improperly constructed and sealed wells can allow surface contamination to enter the well. Improperly maintained septic systems containing human waste and any chemical you flush down the drain, horses, and backyard poultry can contaminate the groundwater. Leaks from underground storage tanks, surface disposal of solvents, motor oil, paint, paint thinner, or nearby or historic landfills or industrial operations can contaminate groundwater. A confining geological layer can protect groundwater from surface contaminants more effectively than a fractured rock system or sand and gravel, and there is very limited natural protection in karst terrain. In Virginia, where there are rich supplies of groundwater our aquifers can be very susceptible to contamination in certain locations.

Often well owners lack access to objective information and a framework for understanding problems and help in solving the problems with their wells.  Because private drinking water wells serve more than a fifth of its population, Virginia  has taken steps to assist private well owners monitor, understand and maintain their wells. The Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) was created by the Virginia Cooperative Extension to provide affordable water testing and education about private water wells to residents of the Commonwealth. For $65 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. These are mostly the 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 this is not an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells. Though Prince William's clinic was in the spring, Loudoun, Fairfax, Culpeper and Fauquier Counties are are all having clinics this fall. You should make a point to participate in the program. It is an easy way to check your well every year.

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