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Keep your private well water safe with county resources
Less than 10 percent of Iowa’s private wells were tested in 2020
About 1 in every 10 Iowa residents depends on a private well for drinking water. But these wells are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, so owners are responsible for their upkeep and monitoring.
Yet less than 10 percent of the state’s nearly 100,000 active private wells had any water test sample collected in 2020, according to state data. That can put consumers and their health at risk.
By definition, private wells are ones that serve no more than 25 people at least 60 days a year. The drinking water pulled from these wells can be contaminated by natural sources and human activities, like nearby agriculture or grazing livestock. Poorly maintained and abandoned wells can taint groundwater.
That’s why officials urge residents to adequately monitor and maintain their wells. State funds help counties provide free water sampling and subsidized treatments for well maintenance.
“We're trying to get the word out,” said James Lacina, a Johnson County Public Health environmental health specialist involved in the county’s private well assistance program. “Some people don't even know that's an option or available to them.”
Contaminants to look out for
On average, 80 new wells are permitted in Linn County annually. Johnson County permitted just less than 50 wells last year.
Some of the most common well water contaminants in Iowa, along with their 2020 detection rates in the state and Linn and Johnson counties, are:
- Arsenic, a naturally occurring toxic substance and carcinogen. Elevated arsenic levels were found in 14 percent of samples statewide, compared with 18 percent in Linn County and 8 percent in Johnson County. A private well in Solon has historically been plagued by dangerous arsenic concentrations.
- Coliform bacteria, which indicate water contamination that can make people sick. Just under a third of statewide water samples tested positive for the microorganism. Linn County and Johnson County reported 21 percent and 22 percent positive tests, respectively.
- Nitrate, which is a form of nitrogen that can cause blue baby syndrome. One out of every 10 samples in the state presented elevated nitrate levels. In Linn County, less than 1 percent of samples showed elevated nitrate levels, compared with 5 percent in Johnson County.
Other pollutants are being tested for as well, sometimes on a case-by-case basis.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are human-made “forever chemicals” that accumulate in the environment and human bodies over time. Linn County staffers recently have been sampling more for the compounds at high-risk areas, said Ruby Perin, the county’s home and water quality supervisor.
Johnson County recently has received approval to test for PFAS on a limited basis for areas of concern, Lacina said. Tests can cost up to $550 each.
“That’s an emerging contaminant that’s hitting everybody’s radar,” he said about PFAS.
Radium also has been detected in Iowa’s private wells, according to a recent study funded by the University of Iowa’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination.
The naturally-occurring radioactive element was detected in nearly half of the samples taken across 94 private wells in 10 counties with histories of radium in their public water systems, including Johnson County. Researchers also found that inorganic substances persisted in customers’ drinking water unless advanced treatments, like reverse osmosis, were used.
“Private wells are susceptible to all the same quality challenges that public water systems are, and we might need to be taking a far more holistic approach to how we monitor them to really account for all the risks that could be there,” said David Cwiertny, director of the UI center.
County resources available
Iowa passed the Groundwater Protection Strategy in 1987 that created the Grants to Counties Program — a fund that supports statewide private well monitoring to better protect groundwater.
Counties can use the money to plug abandoned wells, rehabilitate damaged wells and monitor well water. Testing for any substance with a federal standard — like PFAS or microcystins — can also be reimbursed. Some funds can help subsidize costs for other well-related needs.
“Here in Iowa, we have a lot to be celebrating about how we address private wells,” Cwiertny said.
However, these state funds are often underutilized, according to a 2019 report by Cwiertny and UI professor of geographical and sustainability studies Silvia Secchi. Some counties aren’t using even half of their awarded grants.
“The Department of Public Health and Department of Natural Resources … are doing all they can to keep the program flexible and productive,” Cwiertny said. “A lot of well users still don't take advantage of it.”
Linn and Johnson counties both offer free or subsidized assistance for private wells in the area. Call 319-892-6000 in Linn or 319-356-6040 in Johnson for more information.
Upon request, staffers can be sent to collect water samples from private wells once a year free of charge. Well owners can also receive assistance with the construction, permitting and maintenance of their wells.
“Environmental health is one of the most important aspects for everybody's health,” Perin said. “Everybody needs to have good water sources.”
Linn County Public Health’s Private Water Well Program is on track to spend more than 75 percent of its allocated funding, she said. If it hits that target, it receives additional funding left over by other counties.
Last fiscal year, Johnson County administered 188 water tests, Lacina said. This year, the county received about $50,000 for its program.
“We would love to see more people take advantage,” he said. “Just being able to be aware of … what steps to take to get wells back to safe status is a key part of what this program can do.”
Methods exist to make water safer
If contamination is found in wells, there are several options to make the drinking water safer.
Home water softeners help remove contaminants like radium, calcium and magnesium, although they also leave treated water with high levels of sodium. Reverse osmosis can help remove additional substances like nitrates and PFAS.
Some options are cheaper than others. There’s little to no state funding allocated for well water treatments. A recent Center for Agricultural and Rural Development report found that only 10 percent of surveyed households in Iowa reported having a filter that can remove nitrate.
“It's a justice issue where we are putting a far greater burden on these folks to ensure that their water is safe to drink,” Cwiertny said. “We need to be creative with how we help folks in these rural parts.”
Best practices for private well owners
• Get your well water tested at least once a year.
• Make sure the opening of your well is raised to prevent contamination.
• Make sure your well cap is sealed.
• Remove any standing water around the well.
• Look for any cracks or damages to the well.
Brittney J. Miller is an environmental reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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