Western Iowa floods challenge private wells

Tests for contamination way up in southwestern counties

Craig Melvin talks Aug. 19, 2016, about his well, located in a field a short distance from his house in Farragut, as a s
Craig Melvin talks Aug. 19, 2016, about his well, located in a field a short distance from his house in Farragut, as a storm rolls in. When Melvin and his family first moved into the house on Easter of that year, they had to treat the water with chlorine to address some bacteria issues. The well, built in 1980, also had high levels of nitrogen and trace levels of arsenic and lead. (Lauren Shotwell/IowaWatch)

A rural water supply main doesn’t run by Jamie and Bradley Stephens’ home in southwest Iowa’s Mills County.

“If it did, I would hook into it in a heartbeat,” said Jamie Stephens, as she battled in late May to get safe drinking water from a well overtopped for a week by Missouri River floodwaters.

Contamination of private well water in southwest Iowa from human and natural causes is a problem even in dry times. But in this year of prolonged flooding that struck big swaths of western Iowa this spring, well owners have heightened concerns and are keeping county health officials busy testing for contaminants such as coliform and E. coli bacteria, nitrates and arsenic.

More private well owners are availing themselves of an Iowa Department of Natural Resources program that pays for testing.

The flooding has not caused a huge spike in levels of coliform and E. coli bacteria, nitrates and arsenic in the region, state and county environmental health officials interviewed by IowaWatch said, but many well owners face challenges in keeping their drinking water safe.

After pumping 4 feet of water from their 15-year-old home’s basement, the Stephenses had to wait “until water quit shooting out of the top of the wellhead” to get the well back in operation, Jamie Stephens said.

The Stephenses had the well tested twice in May and shocked it with disinfectants repeatedly, following recommendations from their county sanitarian.


In a text the first week of June, the couple wrote: “We are still working on getting everything bad out of the water. Not drinkable yet. Shocked the well twice and waiting for the test results from the last shock to see if it’s clear to drink.”

Flooding prompts more testing of wells

Statistics compiled by Russell Tell, a senior environmental specialist who works with the Iowa DNR Private Well Testing program, show well owners increasingly are concerned with water quality. In the period of March 15, when the flooding started, through May 30, Mills County submitted invoices for testing of 104 samples, compared with 67 in the same period last year.

Harrison County billed for 29 tests, up from 19 the year before. Pottawattamie County billed for 91 tests, up from 51 last year. Fremont and Monona counties recorded declines, but Tell cautioned that timing easily can skew the statistics.

County environmental officers wear many hats and have been especially busy in flood-stricken areas, so they may not have stopped long enough to bill the Iowa DNR for reimbursement for well tests.

Mills County Environmental Specialist Mike Sukup had tested 161 private well samples by May 28, compared with 200 all of last year.

“Most of my water tests have been from the flood area. Results are mixed,” he said. “We had coliform and E. coli. Some had all of it, nitrates plus arsenic.

“On those that haven’t been flooded, not seeing worse results than normal,” he added.

With Standing water, worst may be yet to come

Well expert Michael Schnieders, president of Ottawa, Kan.-based Water Systems Engineering, warns that the worst impacts on private wells are yet to be revealed.

“There’s still a lot of standing water. The longer wells are underwater, the worse those impacts are,” he said.

Several concerns for wells have been compromised by flooding, he said. “Any one of them can be dangerous in its own right.”


Intact wells are at risk for fouling by sediment and debris. Naturally occurring bacteria and iron can increase and nutrients applied as fertilizer can get into the aquifers, so care should be taken to ensure water is safe to drink, Schnieders said.

Mills County’s Sukup and his Fremont County counterpart, Erman Mullins, said they haven’t seen that worst-case scenario play out.

“I’m not seeing anything real bad,” Mullins said in late April. Of recent well tests, most showed coliform and E. coli bacteria levels at acceptable levels of less than 1 milligram per liter and only one that’s been over 10 on nitrates.

A month later, two of 10 recent tests showed water over the acceptable bacteria levels and one with nitrates at 13 milliliters per liter, considered too high for exposure to infants.

Test results he’s seen over the last five years show that floodwaters have affected some private wells, “but I’m not seeing anything that makes me think there is something really wrong,” Tell said.

This year, for example, the private well statewide average for tolerable rates of total coliform bacteria was 77.21 percent. Monona, Pottawattamie and Mills counties have tested in the 72 percent to 74 percent range. The same counties tested at equal to or above the state average for E. coli.

But more alarmingly, rates for acceptable nitrate levels for infants fell well below the state average of 92.87 percent in three of the counties. Monona County came in at 85 percent, Harrison County at 86.21 and Mills County at 85.64.

The state averages themselves are cause for concern. Nearly 23 percent of private wells tested in 2019 had higher than recommended levels of coliform bacteria, more than 3 percent were above the safe level for E. coli and over 7 percent exceeded the safe infant level for nitrates.

TAKING ACTION to reduce well pollution

IowaWatch reporter Lauren Shotwell tested water for 28 private well owners in southwest Iowa in 2016, finding 15 with unsafe bacteria levels and 13 with nitrate levels above 40. Some but not all well owners recontacted this spring continue to face issues:


l Luke Buttry, whose wife, Kathy, operates a day care in their Fremont County home, said their water tests failed again so they use bottled water. The Buttrys’ water in 2016 tested as high in lead, but under safe limits for total coliform, E. coli and nitrates.

l Brian Arkfield of Shelby County, whose water had a nitrate level of 168 in 2016, compared with a level considered safe of 45, said, “we had it retested and it came back good.” He has chlorinated the water and changed filters in the basement. “We’re feeling good about that,” he said.

l After relying on a reverse osmosis system to purify their well water plagued by high nitrates, Pottawattamie County residents Connie and Dale Schroder spent $5,000 to 6,000 to hook their home to Avoca-based Regional Water’s system last year. They continue to use well water for their livestock.

“Now we’re paying double costs,” Connie Schroder said. They pay a $53 per month minimum to Regional Water and still bear the operating costs for the well.

Schroder, who had thyroid cancer a year ago, still is wary.

“The taste of rural water isn’t as good,” she said, and she wonders if the piped-in water is any safer. “How do you know?” she asked.

Regional Water’s “2019 Quality On Tap Report” for 2018 testing results, released May 18, shows no violations for a wide variety of contaminants.

l Jenny and Craig Melvin’s well tested at 74 milligrams per liter of nitrogen when they moved into their home near Farragut in 2016. Total coliform bacteria were present, too, another concern with a newborn in the household. “It’s still high in nitrates,” Craig Melvin said recently about new tests last summer.

“Bacteria came back, too. We shock once or twice a year to try to help it,” he said. The Melvins also rely on bottled water for drinking.


Though rural water runs in front of the Melvins’ house, the $5,000 cost to hook on puts it out of reach, he said.

“We’re not planning to do anything different at this moment unless some assistance becomes available,” he said.

LOCATION MATTERS when it comes to wells

Sukup said issues with well water vary with location. Recent news reports of high nitrate levels in Malvern’s city water supply prompted area residents with private wells to have their water tested. Of 77 wells tested in April, seven were found with elevated nitrate levels, he said. The nitrates in this case are naturally occurring, and many well owners at higher elevations found few problems, he said.

In any case, he recommends having a private well tested annually.

“Some people think if I tell you that you have bad water, you’ll tell me I have to drill a new well,” Sukup said.

But residents are learning that the test results are good information for their own decision-making, he said.

As the wet month of May ended and June was beginning, the Stephenses in Mills County still were shocking their well and relying on a reverse osmosis system to remove high iron content and bacteria from their drinking water. They also were keeping a wary eye on the weather and Missouri River.

“We’re in danger of getting flooded again,” Jamie Stephens said. “If that happens, we’ll have to start over.”

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch, a nonprofit news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at

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