Is Your Well Water Safe to Drink?

ISU Extension specialists are getting questions from rural residents about safety of well water.

Once the recent floodwaters begin to recede, many rural Iowa residents are wondering about the safety of their water - for themselves and their livestock.

"We are getting lots of questions from farmers and other residents wanting to know if their wells are safe to use - for drinking and for other uses," says Tom Glanville, an Iowa State University Extension ag engineer who specializes in water systems. Here are several of the more common questions. Glanville provides the answers.

1) Do I need to test my well water after the flood? There was no flood on my property but the nearby fields and road were flooded.

Surface water is always contaminated by bacteria, so any well that has been submerged beneath flood waters or high groundwater tables (for well heads located belowground in well pits) the well water definitely needs to be tested. Even if the well has not been submerged--the saturated soil profile, throughout Iowa, increases the risks of pollutant transport into shallow wells and groundwater. Now is a good time for all rural well owners to consider having their well water tested for coliform bacteria and nitrate.

2) Is my well at great risk of contamination if I live close to a livestock operation?

Not necessarily. The risks of private well contamination always go up during wet weather, regardless of whether a well is located near a livestock operation. This is due mainly to the fact that bacteria reside in the topsoil and in surface water at all times, and that many of the private wells used in rural Iowa are old, shallow and leaky.

Even during "normal" years about 30% of private water well samples submitted voluntarily to the University Hygienic Laboratory by well owners are found to contain unsafe levels of coliform bacteria and/or nitrate.

3) Where can I send well samples for testing?

Both the Iowa City and Ankeny branches of the University Hygienic Lab are offering free water test kits to residents of counties included in the governor's disaster declaration. These kits are available through local county health departments. Best local point of contact to get the test kits is through your county environmental health officer or sanitarian.

Several commercial labs throughout the state also offer water quality testing. To make sure, however, that a commercial lab is properly qualified and equipped to perform accurate drinking water testing, clients should inquire whether the lab is state-certified to test water for Iowa public water supplies.

Personnel and equipment at state-certified commercial labs are periodically tested and reviewed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and UHL to insure that their work is accurate and done according to approved procedures.

TAGS: USDA Extension
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