MADISON - Water officials’ annual reminder to private well owners to test their water to make sure it’s safe to drink carries added emphasis this year.
Groundwater Awareness Week, March 7-13, focuses on encouraging private well owners to schedule their water tests, following a recent Wisconsin study suggesting that the vast majority of Wisconsin well owners do not take this important step.
A 2007 study of private well owners in seven Wisconsin counties reported that only 11 percent of participants had tested their well water in the last year. Lori Severtson, RN, PhD, an assistant professor in the UW-Madison School of Nursing who led the study funded by the Great Lakes Regional Water Program and the Medical College of Wisconsin Partnership Program, believes that number is actually lower.
“We’re glad that Groundwater Awareness Week is shining the spotlight on testing because it’s something that all private well owners should do, but often don’t,” says Steve Ales, Department of Natural Resources drinking water and groundwater supervisor for south central Wisconsin.
“Most private wells provide safe drinking water, but conditions can change with time and well owners should regularly test their water to make sure it’s bacteria free.”
DNR recommends that well owners sample their wells once a year for bacteria and any time they notice a change in taste, odor or color. Depending on where they live, there may be other contaminants they should test for regularly as well.
The Test Your Private Well Water Annually page of the DNR Web site features information on what contaminants to test for, a video showing how to properly collect a water sample for accurate testing, and links to lists of laboratories that can do the testing, as well as brochures describing different contaminants.
Few follow testing recommendations to assure safe drinking water
Owners of private wells, like this one here, are responsible for testing their water to make sure it’s safe to drink.
About two-thirds of Wisconsin residents get their drinking water from groundwater wells, compared to half of the population in the rest of the United States. Municipal utilities are required to monitor the water produced by their wells, but private well owners are responsible for testing their own water, Ales says.
Wisconsin has 800,000 to one million private wells, and up to 10,000 new wells are drilled every year. While the state has some of the nation’s most protective groundwater laws and well construction codes, some wells may become contaminated with bacteria that is not filtered out as the water soaks into the ground, says Bob Barnum, DNR drinking water and groundwater supervisor for northeastern Wisconsin.
Surviving bacteria can find its way into the groundwater by moving through shallow fractured bedrock, quarries, sinkholes, inadequately grouted wells or cracks in the well casing. Insects or small rodents can also carry bacteria into wells with inadequate caps or seals.
The UW study suggested that people often don’t test unless they have a special event that triggers them to do so, Severtson says. “One of the strong drivers of testing is circumstances – people are selling their home, getting a new well or having a baby,” she says.
Asked why they did not test, study participants reported that they that they hadn’t noted any problems so far, that they didn’t know what to test for or how to go about it. “People tend to rely on sensory information to inform the need to test water, even though most contaminants cannot be seen, smelled or observed,” Severtson says.
Private well owners may want to test for other contaminants, like nitrate, arsenic or agricultural chemicals depending on the surrounding land use practices in your area, says Rhonda Volz, DNR drinking water and groundwater supervisor for southeastern Wisconsin.
“If you want to know where to start, a good place is to test for bacteria and nitrate. These two things will talk you an awful lot, and if you’re wondering beyond that, talk to a licensed professional,” she said.
To get started testing your water, read through the tips on Test Your Private Well Water Annually and get a test kid from a certified lab by looking at the lists on the DNR Web site or by looking in your phone book for a lab near you.
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Steve Ales (608) 275-3311; Rhonda Volz (414) 263-8576; Bob Barnum (920) 662-5188