Friday, May 23, 2008

Well owners responsible for their water safety

When Frank Hancock was called to the house of a mother with two children sickened by E. coli bacteria, he discovered that the water from their well was the source. He found other wells in the county with problems, too.

“I don’t think our experience is different than any other county,” said Hancock, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agent in Henry County. “People are not maintaining their wells. They don’t think about where their water is coming from.”

Most people don’t know that they must maintain their wells, he said.

“If the county water supply has a problem, there are probably 100 people working on it,” he said. “If your well has a problem and you aren’t working on it, no one is.”

To get the word out in his county, Hancock organized a well water maintenance seminar.

“We wanted to let people know the risks of not taking care of their well,” he said, “and tell them, 'this is your responsibility.'”

“You will find low levels of bacteria in most wells,” said Parshall Bush, a residue chemist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “There are different levels of contamination.”

Since 2003, 10 percent of bored wells tested at the UGA Agricultural and Environmental Services Laboratory contain E. coli. More than half failed to meet Environmental Protection Agency municipal drinking water standards. One out of three showed bacteria levels high enough to cause illness. Most water samples sent to the lab come from north Georgia.

Drilled wells, typically deeper than 100 feet, are less likely to be contaminated by bacteria. Wells less than 60 feet deep are more likely than deeper wells to be contaminated. Soil above the water table doesn’t filter enough bacteria from shallow groundwater.

If a septic system is too close to the well or not working properly, Bush said, it can be the bacteria source.

“Contamination can occur if the well was improperly constructed or if the well is located in a depression that collects surface runoff,” Bush said.

The UGA well-cam was used to checkout problem wells in Henry County.

“We saw cracks in well liners, tree roots so numerous in wells that the camera couldn’t pass by, wells with spider webs down to the 14-foot level,” Hancock said. “We also saw well houses totally contaminated with gas, pesticides, fertilizer and rats.”

Nitrate, lead and copper are the primary contaminates found in Georgia well water, said Bush.

“Nitrate contamination is the result of fertilizer application or animal operations and copper and lead can be attributed to corrosive pipes.”

All pesticides and herbicides should be kept away from wells and other sources of drinking water, he said.

“We always say, ‘If you don’t want to drink it, keep it away from the well,’” Bush said.

Abandoned wells should be filled in.

Well testing can be done through local UGA Extension offices. A bacterial test is available for $35. An expanded water test, which tests for minerals, soluble salts and alkalinity, is $45. Call 1-800-ASK-UGA1 for more information.

Once a water sample is tested, the well owner will get a report showing results that are above EPA's primary and secondary maximum levels. If a water sample tests positive for bacteria, a chlorination treatment is recommended.

by April Sorrow
University of Georgia

April Sorrow is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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