Finding unsafe water doesn’t always spur action

Iowans sometimes ignore tests showing high nitrates in private wells

by Lauren Shotwell, originally posted on January 1, 2017


Just east of the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area, Shelby County Environmental Health Director Teri Daringer has found a large number of private drinking water wells with high total coliform bacteria and nitrate levels in the southwest Iowa county.

Private Well Tracking System data show 56 percent of the county’s wells have tested positive for total coliform bacteria and 64 percent for high nitrates. Many of the wells are large diameter, tiled wells, which are more prone to contamination, Daringer said.

But sometimes, even when their wells are tested and unsafe water is discovered, people still don’t take action.

“We show them what’s in their water, but no one is going to force them to do anything,” said Mike Stringham, who tests wells in nearby Adair, Cass, Audubon and Guthrie counties.

For an IowaWatch investigation, which was published Dec. 27 in The Gazette, the nonprofit news organization spent the past year researching private wells and testing samples. IowaWatch found a large percentage of wells with high nitrate and bacteria levels.

High levels of nitrogen pose a health risk to infants in the form of blue baby syndrome, in which an infant becomes lethargic or worse. Some studies have shown increased risks for some types of cancers, reproductive issues, diabetes, and thyroid conditions.

Roughly 288,000 Iowans rely on private water supplies.

Across Stringham’s four counties, he said, his office tests about 200 wells each year, but that’s not evenly distributed. Adair County, for example, has more people connected to rural water, so his office doesn’t do as many tests as there as in Guthrie County, where the aquifers are better and there are fewer opportunities to connect to rural water.

His office deals with septic systems and well permitting and testing in the four counties.

Russ Tell, a senior environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the state’s Grants to Counties program plays a huge role getting people to test their wells and understand their water quality. The program gives counties money to cover administrative costs, well tests and other well safety services.

“It may not sound like much, but many times a suite of tests on a well that may cost $80 to $100, that’s a limiting factor for many well users,” Tell said. “They may not want to spend that money because the water looks clean, and it looks clear, and it tastes good.”

He said several well owners test their wells every year, but many don’t.

“There’s many wells out there that have not been reached yet, whether they don’t know about the program, whether life’s busy and it’s not on the priority list, whatever the case may be,” he said. “We know we’re not reaching every well owner out there.”

Tell said the program provides 6,000 to 7,000 water tests a year, although some might be from repeated testing on the same well.

When a problem like high bacteria is discovered, several tests often are run to narrow down where the contamination is coming from and to verify that steps taken to fix the problem have been effective.

Daringer said people in Shelby County often call to get their wells tested because they have kids or infants and are concerned about their water quality, although she said people sometimes call based on advice from a doctor.

Many people have switched to rural water supplies because of area wells’ poor water quality, Daringer said, although they sometimes keep the wells for livestock or for watering their yards or gardens. By her count, the county has plugged approximately 2,000 wells in two decades.

One of the problems sanitarians face is the many well owners who figure that testing is unnecessary as long as the water looks, smells and tastes fine and the well is producing enough water.

“One of the things that I come across when I talk to citizens on the phone is that, if it’s working, there must not be a problem,” Tell said. “And that kind of philosophy will lead itself to having well problems because periodic maintenance is required and water testing is really one of those drivers that help you define the maintenance on your well.”

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations and that received a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for this investigation.

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