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Report: Many Iowa counties underusing private well testing funds

Grants to Counties program pays to test drinking water in private wells, make repairs to reduce contaminants

A billboard in Denison advertises well testing services on June 21, 2016. (Lauren Mills Shotwell/IowaWatch)
A billboard in Denison advertises well testing services on June 21, 2016. (Lauren Mills Shotwell/IowaWatch)

By Erin Jordan, The Gazette

Nearly 300,000 Iowans get their drinking water from private wells, yet a state grant program for testing well water and making repairs to reduce contaminants is underused, a new University of Iowa report shows.

The Grants to Counties program, started in 1987 and funded through pesticide and fertilizer fees, provides grants for private well testing for nitrate, bacteria and arsenic as well as money for reconstructing private wells and plugging abandoned wells and cisterns.

The program “has seen some severe underutilization over the past five years” with more than half of Iowa counties spending less than half their allocations between 2013 and 2018, according to a report released Monday by the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination.

Johnson County used 82 percent of its $199,000 allocation over five years, but Linn County used only 63 percent of its allocation of the same amount.

Three counties — Delaware, Jefferson and Clayton — used all the money granted to them from 2013 to 2018, while five counties — Dubuque, Adams, Fremont, Wapello and Montgomery — used less than a fourth of their funds.

“We need to make people aware that the program is around and how useful it is,” said Silvia Secchi, an associate professor of geographical and sustainability studies at the UI and co-author of the report. “This was the main thinking behind our report — let’s make sure we do not leave money on the table and make the program as effective as possible.”

There is no required monitoring of private wells in Iowa and most other states. A 2016 IowaWatch investigation of 28 private wells found unsafe levels of nitrate in 11 wells and unsafe levels of bacteria in 15 wells. A handful of wells also had trace amounts of arsenic and lead.

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Nitrate in drinking water has been linked to infant methemoglobinemia — blue-baby syndrome — a life-threatening condition reducing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, as well as some cancers and thyroid problems.

Iowans interested in well testing, repairs or plugging through the Grants to Counties program should contact their county public health departments.

• Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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