Is my drinking water safe? The importance of testing the quality of your well water
Water well in the snow
The United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends an annual testing of your well water to ensure that quality is maintained. However, many people have not considered testing or may be putting it off. This probably means they won’t ever get around to it, or in a worst case, it will be too late when they do.
Well water safety is your responsibility
It seems obvious that most well owners just don’t seem to see water testing as a priority. Additionally, most private wells provide fairly decent water. The challenge is that, without regular testing, if the water becomes contaminated, it is unlikely you will know it until it’s too late. Very few toxic contaminants have an odor, taste or color that makes it obvious when they enter well water.
Many times a year, I see a report about a problem with a well, or group of wells, somewhere in the United States. Unfortunately, most of these issues come to light because someone, or often several people, have become ill. Routine testing would almost certainly have ensured that the issue would have been noticed prior to the health situations occurring.
Routine testing provides a baseline of results so when there are changes, experts can more easily identify the likely source of the change.
So then the question becomes what should be tested? One opinion commonly presented is that a test for coliform & e.Coli bacteria, pH, nitrate and nitrite is adequate. Additionally, it is often suggested that if these contaminants are within certain limits, that the water is potable.
There are many challenges with this conclusion:
- There are many other microorganisms which can be present in drinking water that are harmful to some or most people and/or animals. These are often present even though there are is no coliform or E. Coli present.
- There are many toxins not listed above that are seen in drinking water from time to time, and which occur from both natural and man-made sources: lead, arsenic, volatile organic compounds, copper and other heavy metals.
- It is frequently assumed that if contaminants are within standard limits that there is no problem. An experienced individual can see trends of contaminants, below those limits, that point to the source of the problem. For example, significant levels of calcium and/or potassium and chloride, with relatively low levels of nitrates, can point to surface water leaking into the well.
One important contributing factor to well water quality is the construction and location of the well. A properly constructed and maintained modern, deep drilled well is less likely to have issues than one that is poorly constructed, shallow or a hand dug well.
Any of the following can be easily observed and can be a red flag as to the quality of the well and indicate more extensive testing is recommended:
- Shallow or hand-dug wells.
- The well head at or below the grade.
- The well cap does not have a good seal against bugs and rodents.
- Plants, or any vegetation, are close to the well. A good rule of thumb is a minimum of one foot from the well. Three feet is better.
There are also some additional well water concerns, which can be less obvious:
- The well casing does not go deep enough to seal off the source of surface water.
- There is another, often abandoned well, that is poorly maintained, allowing contaminated surface water to get into the aquifer.
- Pollution from nearby industrial facilities, farms or waste disposal sites – particularly old unmanaged sites.
- Buried tanks for heating oil, gasoline, fuel oil or similar products.
So what is the bottom line? At a minimum, you will want to test for volatile organic compounds and other common wet chemistry parameters. For wells that are not well constructed or maintained, a more extensive test for microorganisms is recommended. When you are adjacent to a waste disposal site, active farm or industrial facility, a discussion with an experienced lab worker is probably the only way to define the correct testing.
Your well is a mechanical tool used every day by your family. It is as valuable as a small car, and needs regular maintenance. A few hundred dollars a year can ensure that it has a long and useful life for your family.