Well-water everywhere, but is it safe?
People who live in a municipality or on an otherwise organized public water system area enjoy some protections against anything harmful being in their water. Tests are done regularly and reports have to go out, and a level of protection is offered by the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the standards for safe drinking water using the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
<In Delaware, the Office of Drinking Water enforces those regulations. Water from central water systems is tested on a regular basis for about 100 regulated contaminants – from micro-organisms to disinfection byproducts to inorganic and organic chemicals.
But for those who have their own private well? That’s a different story, and one that is particularly meaningful in Sussex County.
While, statewide and nationwide, only about 12 to 15 percent of people get their drinking water from a private residential well, according to DNREC, there are 34,909 residences with a private well in Sussex County. Using the county’s calculations of 2.7 people per household on average, up to 48 percent of Sussex County’s 197,146 population could be using water from a private well.
And while the EPA regulates public water systems, it does not have the authority to regulate private drinking water wells. According to the EPA, as a result, these households “must take special precautions to ensure the protection and maintenance of their drinking water supplies.”
As described on the EPA Web site, when rain falls, much of it is absorbed into the ground. Water that’s not used by plants moves downward through pores and spaces in the ground until it reaches a dense layer of rock.
The water trapped below the ground in the pores and spaces above the dense rock barrier is called groundwater, and this is the water people access when they drill wells. Another common term for groundwater supplies is an “aquifer” or “groundwater aquifer.”
All private wells use groundwater.
According to the EPA, there can be many sources of contamination of groundwater, including naturally occurring chemicals and minerals, such as arsenic, radon, uranium; local land-use practices, such as fertilizers, pesticides, livestock, animal feeding operations and bio-solids application; manufacturing processes; sewer overflows and malfunctioning wastewater treatment systems – an example of which might be a nearby septic system.
What can I do?
The State of Delaware offers water test kits specifically for private well owners for $2 each, for both chemical and bacteriological contaminants, or $4 for both. The kits test for bacteria and the following chemical parameters: nitrate, nitrite, iron, fluoride, alkalinity, pH, chloride, sulfate, sodium and hardness.
In addition to annual testing the state recommends more frequent testing in some cases. For example, if someone in the house is pregnant or nursing; if the water is being used to prepare formula for an infant; if neighbors find a dangerous contaminant in their water; if there is a noted change in water taste, odor, color or clarity; and when any part of a well or plumbing system is repaired or replaced.
While the state-offered tests can identify some potentially harmful contaminants, such as nitrates or bacteria, they do not test for pesticides and herbicides. In fact, most of the tests are considered “aesthetic,” meaning they are testing for aspects such as hardness or iron – things that affect the taste or function of water, rather than safety – explained Ed Hollack of the Delaware Office of Drinking Water.
At his recent Coffee’s on Me event, state Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th) mentioned that people would be “amazed” at what comes back when they do more extensive water tests. He mentioned that people with shallow wells, especially, should look into getting their water tested if they are on a private well.
Melissa White and her family - who have a Frankford address but are not served by the town’s central water system – purchased a home that had an existing well. Because of its location on a road where there used to be a dump and living next to a farm, they were very concerned about water quality.
While drilling a new well for a geothermal system, they were told by their well driller they had to have a special permit because of their proximity to the old dump. White said it was through that process that they got nervous about their drinking water well and they decided to have that well tested and were “surprised it didn’t come back too bad.”
In fact, their water tested negative for excessive nitrates – a common issue in Sussex County because of the nitrogen overload in the soil.
White used a water testing lab in Salisbury, Md., and the test costs about $600 – but, she said, it was worth it.
“Peace of mind is huge,” she said.
After the results came back, they had a system installed to take iron out of the well water, and White said, to be safe, they also installed a carbon filter, a reverse osmosis system and a UV light to kill bacteria.
There is some protection for well owners
While there is no built-in state-sponsored testing of private wells, residents with private wells are somewhat protected against pesticides and other harmful contaminants in their water by the State. According to the Delaware Department of Agriculture, their pesticide section began monitoring the state’s shallow groundwater for pesticides in 1995.
Since then, they have collected more than 1,000 individual groundwater samples from more than 220 domestic, agricultural and monitoring wells, according to state hydrologist Laura Mensch.
Samples are screened for up to 22 different pesticides that are commonly used in agriculture and the commercial industry. These include alachlor, atrazine, carbofuran, chlorothalonil, chlorpyrifos, cyanazine, diazinon, dicamba, dieldrin, glyphosate, lambda-cyhalothrin, lindane, malathion, metolachlor, metribuzin, pendimethalin, picloram, simazine and the compound 2, 4-D.
Data, maps and information on all of the wells’ results are posted online and can be reached through the Department of Agriculture’s Web site.
Much of the data collected is in a joint University of Delaware and Delaware Geological Survey report from 2000, “The Occurrence and Distribution of Several Agricultural Pesticides in Delaware Shallow Ground Water,” also available online in its entirety.
Mensch said that, in the future, she would like to include five years of data using an EPA drinking water-approved method.
“Previous data like those used in the 2000 report were from the immunoassay method (ELISA or Enzyme-Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay). The ELISA method is ideal for a screening tool, but not the best for producing quantitative, definitive data,” she noted.
Mensch said she started using EPA drinking water methods in 2009 so five years of data would be available in 2013. After that, data could be generated and compiled and then a report could be written using the data from newer methods.
Highlights of report from 2000 include the fact that data shows that almost 80 percent of the analyses did not contain any detectable concentrations of the pesticides studied.
It states, “Consistent with several national studies on the occurrence of pesticides in groundwater, 96 percent of the analyses had concentrations less than 1.0 mg/L. Concentrations in the majority of the total number of analyses were below the MDL of 0.1 mg/L for alachlor (62 percent), atrazine (70 percent), metolachlor (81 percent), simazine (85 percent) and cyanazine (96 percent).
Of those that exceeded the MDL, alachlor and atrazine were the most frequently detected herbicides during each year of the study.”
Alachlor is used mainly on corn and soybean fields. Atrazine is used mainly on corn fields. Both are selective herbicides used for controlling grasses and weeds. An Alachlor and Atrazine in Groundwater fact sheet, which lists specific risks to human health, including damage to the liver, kidneys, eyes and spleen, was produced by the Illinois Department of Public Health and can be seen online at http://www.idph.state.il.us/envhealth/factsheets/alachlor-atrazine.htm.
In addition to the Department of Agriculture working with the Office of Drinking Water to notify homeowners of issues near domestic wells, if and when they do occur, Monsanto – international producer of agricultural and vegetable seeds, plant biotechnology traits, and crop protection chemicals – asserts that it “remains committed to offering [its Well Assistance Program] to those who rely on a well as their source of water and believes that high water quality is of utmost importance.”
Monsanto spokesperson Kathleen Manning said that, while it is not utilized regularly, the program has been used in Sussex County as recently as 1996, to replace a private well. The program is designed to help assure rural drinking water quality and “provides financial assistance to owners of eligible rural, domestic wells in which herbicides manufactured by Monsanto are detected at levels above health-based standards.”
Issues that are more common to the area
In addition to the possibility of agricultural contaminants, there are many other more likely and common issues for the area.
Byron Hurd of Shore Water Refining in Dagsboro said clear-water iron and calcium (hardness) are common issues with the water in southeastern Sussex County. But other hazards – such as nitrates, which even in low quantities can kill vulnerable populations, especially infants – are also a common occurrence.
“We had three installs that had nitrates over 40 this week,” he said, adding that if nitrates levels test at less than 10, the water doesn’t need to be treated. A special system with an ion-negative ion exchange is used to treat water with high nitrates.
Another issue he said is common is “rotten-egg smell,” which they use a chlorine and charcoal filter system to remedy. Some wells have water where the pH levels are off. Depending on whether the levels are too high or too low, they have solutions for each.
And, being on a public system doesn’t necessarily mean one’s water doesn’t need some sort of treatment.
“A lot of people think, ‘I’ve got public water – it’s fine.’ But quite the contrary,” said Hurd.
He said that, many times, the treated water can still have a chlorine taste and smell, and a refiner system, which costs less than some of the other systems available, can help with that.
White offered an example, saying that, when her family lived in Selbyville and had town water, after a shower the whole bathroom would smell of chlorine.
And although she has already had her current drinking water tested at her new home, she has plans to stay on top of it, she said, because she feels more protected going at it alone than relying on a town or the state.
“I am thinking about testing it again,” she said of her well. “We have been here two and a half years, and I feel safer on well water than we did on public water, knowing I am managing it myself.”
Residents who think there may be a problem with their well or who want information on water test kits can visit http://dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/dph/hsp/privdw.html online and scroll down to the bottom of the page. For more information on the extensive water testing, visit http://www.dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/dph/hsp/dwlabcert.html.