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What Do I Need To Know To Protect My Private Drinking Water Supply?

Approximately 23 million U.S. citizens rely on their own private drinking water supplies. Most of these supplies are drawn from ground water through wells, but some households also use water from streams or cisterns. These households must take special precautions to ensure the protection and maintenance of their drinking water supplies.

How Can I Test The Quality Of My Private Drinking Water Supply?

Private water supplies should be tested annually for nitrate and coliform bacteria to detect contamination problems early. They should be tested more frequently and for more potential contaminants, such as radon or pesticides, if a problem is suspected.

Many laboratories are available to test water quality. Lists of laboratories certified by your state or the U.S. EPA may be available from your local or state public health department. Some local health departments also test private water for free. Phone numbers for your local, county, or state health department are available under the government listings in your phone book.

If you use a private laboratory to conduct the testing, nitrate and bacteria samples will typically cost between $10 and $20 to complete. Testing for other contaminants will be more expensive. For example, testing for pesticides or organic chemicals may cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

The laboratory usually supplies sample bottles. Depending on the type of test to be completed, the bottles may contain preservatives or include special instructions for handling the samples. Private water can most easily be sampled at the drinking water tap by carefully filling the bottles to avoid spilling or getting other contaminants into the bottle. For nitrates and other basic water tests, the bottles can usually be mailed to the laboratory. Some tests, such as those for coliform bacteria, may require that the sample bottles be kept cool until they are delivered to the laboratory for analysis.

Most laboratories mail back the sample results within days or several weeks. The results typically indicate whether a particular contaminant was detected in the sample. If a contaminant is detected, the results will include the concentration of the contaminant and an indication of whether this concentration exceeds a drinking water quality standard. If a standard is exceeded in your sample, you should retest the water supply immediately and contact your public health department for assistance. Some problems can be handled quickly. For example, high bacteria concentrations can sometimes be controlled by disinfecting a well. Filters or other on-site treatment processes may also remove some contaminants. Other problems may require a new source of water, such as a new, deeper well. If serious problems persist, you may need to rely on bottled water until a new water source can be obtained.

You can also check here to see if the EPA has a record of any violations by your public water supply.

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How Can I Protect My Private Water Supply?

You can protect your water supply by carefully managing activities near the water source. For households using a domestic well, this includes keeping contaminants away from sinkholes and the well itself. Hazardous chemicals also should be kept out of septic systems.

Several sources of technical assistance are available to help you protect your water supply. The organization Farm*A*Syst/Home*A*Syst provides fact sheets and worksheets to help farmers and rural residents assess pollution risks and develop management plans geared toward their circumstances. For example, Farm*A*Syst helps farmers and ranchers identify pollution risks from nitrates, microbes, and toxic chemicals. Home*A*Syst reaches homeowners who face pollution risks from faulty septic systems, pesticide use, petroleum leaks, and hazardous waste disposal. More information about the programs is available from:

Farm*A*Syst/Home*A*Syst Program
B142 Steenbock Library
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI 53706
608 262-0024
e-mail: [email protected]
web site: http://www.wisc.edu/farmasyst

Local health departments and agricultural extension agents can also provide general technical assistance. They can be found under the government listing in your phone book. The U.S. EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline also provides access to publications and technical assistance over the phone at (800) 426-4791. The Hotline may also be able to direct you to other sources of state and local assistance.

Protecting Your Ground Water Supply bulletPeriodically inspect exposed parts of the well for problems such as:
- cracked, corroded, or damaged well casing
- broken or missing well cap
- settling and cracking of surface seals.
bulletSlope the area around the well to drain surface runoff away from the well. bulletInstall a well cap or sanitary seal to prevent unauthorized use of, or entry into, the well. bulletDisinfect drinking water wells at least once per year with bleach or hypochlorite granules, according to the manufacturers directions. bulletHave the well tested once a year for coliform bacteria, nitrates, and other constituents of concern. bulletKeep accurate records of any well maintenance, such as disinfection or sediment removal, that may require the use of chemicals in the well. bulletHire a certified well driller for any new well construction, modification, or abandonment and closure. bulletAvoid mixing or using pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, degreasers, fuels, and other pollutants near the well. bulletDo not dispose of wastes in dry wells or in abandoned wells. bulletDo not cut off the well casing below the land surface. bulletPump and inspect septic systems as often as recommended by your local health department. bulletNever dispose of hazardous materials in a septic system.

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