Kathleen Burbidge is global regulatory and government affairs manager for the Water Quality Association. Burbidge can be reached at [email protected].
About one-third of Americans have been working from home due to the pandemic, according to NPR, and most schools transitioned to distance learning before summer break. More time at home might mean more focus on home maintenance. From the U.S. Census on American Housing Survey from 2017, it is estimated that more than 13 million households use private wells as their drinking water source. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found nearly 40 million people in the U.S. rely on private wells. The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act does not cover the quality of private well water and it is not regulated by the U.S. EPA. This places the responsibility for testing and necessary treatment of private wells on the homeowner.
Since private wells do not fall under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a homeowner will not receive a consumer confidence report laying out the quality of their drinking water and testing results like those required to be provided to a public water system customer. Instead, the private well owner can get assurance that the water in their home is safe to drink by consulting a water professional, sending a water sample for testing to an EPA accredited lab for a water analysis, and if needed, using the results from the analysis to determine the best treatment technology. Although there is no federal requirement for frequency of testing a private well, it is generally recommended to test the well water every year. When new treatment is installed, test again to verify the system is working correctly. Local health departments and water professionals can help recommend what tests to include in the water analysis when a sample is sent to an EPA accredited lab.
Research was published in 2019 along with interactive maps added in 2020 through the USGS to help homeowners learn more about private wells in the U.S. This USGS domestic private wells geo-narrative shows where domestic private wells are located and how many people are using them. It allows homeowners to view the number and percentage of people relying on private wells by state or number of people per square kilometer.
Although private wells are not regulated federally, every state has set up its own variation of a private well program to provide education and assistance. A few states go further and require testing of well water quality when it is constructed or during the sale of the property. Other states may require disclosure of any previous tests or issues with a private well the homeowner is aware of when the property is being sold.
The required contaminants tested by a lab vary by state. For example, Minnesota requires a new well to be tested for coliform bacteria, nitrate and arsenic. In New Jersey, all test parameters for a new well include total coliform, e. coli, nitrate, iron, manganese, pH, VOCs, lead, arsenic, 1,2,3-trichloropropane, ethylene dibromide, and 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane. In some counties, it is also required to test for mercury, gross alpha particle activity and uranium.
It appears the following states have requirements for testing water quality when constructing a new well. The testing scope, however, varies by state.
California (county level)
Note: Massachusetts gives county health departments authority to make testing requirements when there is a new well.
It appears the following states have requirements for testing water quality when a house with a private well for drinking water is for sale. The testing scope, however, varies by state.
New Jersey Oregon Rhode Island
Note: Washington state gives county health departments authority to make testing requirements when a property is for sale.
It appears the following states have requirements for some type of disclosure relating to the private well when a house with a private well for drinking water is for sale. Types of disclosure requirements vary.
Water Professionals Role in Private Well Water Care
With so many families at home relying on their household’s source water for drinking, the weight of responsibility to test and find appropriate treatment for a private well remains on the homeowner. However, water professionals can assist. An example outreach project, still allowing for social distancing, is to partner with a state or local health department on private well testing initiatives to encourage owners to test their well. Often times, postcards are sent out and a web page is created with information on how to get a well tested and additional resources if the owner has questions after receiving the results. Another outreach project may be a booth at a county fair exhibiting water treatment technologies and answer questions. By offering education, consultations and services to private well owners, homeowners can have a dependable resource to help them through the process of testing and finding appropriate treatment.