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Get to Know Your Private Drinking Water Well - By Bradley M. Campbell, Administrator of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region

Release Date: 10/25/2000
Contact Information: Roy Seneca, (215) 814-5567

As Virginians move outside of the Washington, D.C., Richmond and Norfolk metro areas, more and more of them rely on private wells for drinking water.

Although most private wells deliver healthy water, occasionally there can be problems when groundwater is contaminated by bacteria from septic systems and animal waste, and nitrates from waste or fertilizer. Fuel spills, leaking underground storage tanks, pesticides, and metals from waste-disposal operations can also pollute groundwater.

Unlike public water supply systems that are regularly sampled, the quality of water from a private well can only be determined if the well owner has it sampled. Private wells should be checked annually for bacteria, and if the well is in an agricultural area – especially a limestone “karst area”-- you may also want to test for nitrates or chemicals.

Water in wells comes from groundwater that moves and is filtered between particles of sand, rock or clay. Groundwater is typically cleaner than surface water because it moves slowly underground and it is less likely to be polluted by the contaminants that can easily be washed into surface water.

In most parts of Virginia, groundwater moves slowly, usually less than one foot a day. However, in the karst, or limestone region of Virginia that is west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, groundwater moves quickly, and the surface and groundwater can be directly connected through sinkholes and springs. This makes the groundwater very susceptible to pollution.

Well construction should be checked periodically by a private company. Bored and dug wells are subject to more wear and tear than a drilled well. Blake Ross, Extension Agricultural Engineer at Virginia Tech, goes on to add, “a lot of times problems with a well are the result of the condition of the well and how it was constructed. Owners need to know if the cap is missing or the casing cracked, and the condition of the grouting. In addition to the well itself, owners should be aware of what is going on locally next to and near the well.”

An effective way to check the quality of your drinking water and learn how to maintain the well is through the EPA-supported “Farm*A*Syst” and “Home*A*Syst” assessment programs run by the Virginia Cooperative Extension office. These programs are available statewide to help farm and home owners to ask the right questions and get the answers they need.

“We can do site visits and explain our brochures with the owner. What’s really helpful is when a farm or home owner completes the worksheet that assesses the health and potential risks to their own private wells. It’s a personalized program so each well owner will get a different result - then we can make recommendations based on their assessment,” said Blake Ross, the Farm*A*Syst coordinator.

Local watershed groups are also available in Virginia to assist private well owners. “Our citizen’s watershed committee,” says Rod Bankson, “has worked with home and farm owners in the Holman’s Creek and North Fork of the Shenandoah watershed. We’ve seen petroleum products not stored properly, a cattle-loafing lot too close to a well, and abandoned hand dug wells over a hundred years old. All these things can potentially pollute the ground water here because it’s karst - limestone carbonate - and very vulnerable to contamination. Even though going through the worksheet with the 12 questions is time consuming, it provides extremely valuable information and the “big picture” on your private well.”

Farmer Ed Garber agrees. “On our farm we don’t use a whole lot of chemicals and the cows are fenced away from the well, but there’s a high fecal count in the little branch of Holman’s Creek that runs through our farm. Doing the well testing gave us peace of mind and we plan to do it every two years.”

Once the good health of a well has been established, the next steps are to prevent activities on the land from potentially polluting the well. “We tell well owners to start by not storing anything near the well that you wouldn’t want to drink. Keep and use pesticides, oil, and cleaning agents at a safe distance from your well,” says Bill Perry, of Virginia’s Tidewater Department of Health Office.

Similarly, Theresa Tabulenas, from the National Association of Conservation Districts adds, “It’s not always common sense because people don’t always know that some hazardous substances poured or flushed into household plumbing can go untreated through a septic system and pollute the ground water that ends up in your well, depending upon how the groundwater moves through the soil,” she said.

For information on checking private wells, contact the Farm*A*Syst program at 540-231-4702 or the Home*A*Syst program, 540-231-4783, or visit the following websites: - Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, check INFORMATION RESOURCES for publications on private wells; or - Virginia Department of Health.