Amid the ongoing debate over water quality in Iowa, the fact that tens of thousands of Iowans get their drinking water from unregulated private wells rarely gets much attention.
But it got the attention of Iowa Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization affiliated with the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. Iowa Watch spent months testing private wells, speaking with Iowans who rely on them and engaging county officials who are addressing the issue.
In 28 wells tested by Iowa Watch, 11 had nitrate readings above acceptable levels for human health, two neared the nitrate threshold and 15 yielded unsafe bacteria levels.
Thousands of Iowans served by wells don’t know the status of their water. Testing isn’t required, and many believe water that looks and smells fine can’t be contaminated.
But as Iowa Watch reports, free well testing is available. Test kits, for example, can be requested from the State Hygienic Lab at the University of Iowa.
Also, residents in 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties can seek testing through county sanitarians, thanks to the Iowa Grants to Counties Program. It’s a nearly 30-year-old effort created by the Iowa Legislature as it approved the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act.
Every participating county received more than $26,000 this year in grant dollars funded through a tax on pesticide and fertilizer. The money can be used for testing private wells, as well as reconstructing wells or plugging old wells and cisterns.
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So, currently, Iowans have access to free testing, which can tell them if private wells are marred by bacteria, nitrates, arsenic, lead and other contaminants. All carry health risks at higher than acceptable levels, especially for children. More Iowans need to be informed that testing is available.
Lawmakers smartly directed the Iowa Department health Department to make sure counties with more need for testing and well work get more dollars left unused by counties with less demand.
As testing expands, the state will be able to add more data to its Private Well Tracking System, which records well histories. The database provides well-owners now and in the future with important records. As of now, according to Iowa Watch, only 10 to 15 percent of private wells are recorded in the database.
And expanded database could provide data on well contamination that could inform future water quality protection initiatives.
Iowans who depend on wells should get them tested as soon as possible. The tests are free, and the potential health risks are too costly to ignore.
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