Understand water quality concerns for private wells and municipal supply
Do you know where your household water comes from? Safe drinking water is something many people take for granted. But if that supply is affected, it can quickly disrupt your life and your health.
What to know about well water
If your drinking water comes from a private well, then you are drawing from ground water reserves. Groundwater is naturally filtered by layers of porous rock and dirt, but it is susceptible to pollution and certain natural disruptions.
The most common problem in private well water is bacteria resulting from human or animal wastes. Some of these bacteria can cause stomach upset or diarrhea.
Additionally, man-made chemicals such as gasoline, solvents and pesticides can seep into groundwater and pose a risk to health. Natural chemicals like arsenic, manganese, iron, and radon can also affect well water.
The following tips from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services are suggested for homeowners with private wells.
- Know the age and depth of your well and the length of the pipe inside the well.
- Stay abreast of water quality or drought concerns in your area.
- Find out when your drinking water was last tested.
- Test at least once a year for bacteria. (State and local governments keep updated lists of labs that test well water for bacteria and other contaminants.)
- Test for nitrate. Nitrates collect from fertilizer use, barnyard runoff and septic systems. If you have a high nitrate level there’s a good chance your water also has bacteria or farm chemicals. These can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women and newborns.
- Talk to a regional water supply expert with your state government to find out if arsenic or radon is common in your area.
- If your well is near an old landfill or gas station you might want to test for volatile organic chemicals (VOCs).
- If your well is near an orchard or farm field, a test for pesticides is advised.
- Have your water tested if you notice a change in its taste, odor or color.
- Keep chemicals, septic tanks and animal waste away from your well. Dispose of chemicals and motor oil properly. Don’t put waste chemicals in your septic system. Limit your use of lawn and garden chemicals. Keep the area around your well clean.
What to know about municipal water supplies
If your drinking water is supplied by local government, they are responsible for treating and testing water to U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) standards and state regulations.
However, residents share in the responsibility of protecting the regional water quality.
- Know what lakes, reservoirs or rivers supply your municipal water system.
- Dispose of pesticides, motor oil and other chemicals properly. Reduce your use of lawn and garden chemicals that run off into streams and reservoirs.
- Never dump unwanted pharmaceuticals in the toilet. Put them in the trash or check with your local government for collection locations.
- Call your water utility if you have questions or if you notice a change in the taste, odor smell or color of your water.
There are more than 170,000 public water systems in the United States, delivering more than 1 billion glasses of tap water to consumers daily, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection agency.
Relatively speaking, disruptions to safe water supply are few, but they do happen as the result of breakages, industrial spills and other accidents. As a result, it’s important to listen to and trust your local water authorities.
When an event occurs, follow their instructions carefully for running faucets to clear lines or boiling water to ensure safety from bacteria. Water should be boiled vigorously for at least one minute to ensure safety, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Safe water should be used for drinking, cooking, making baby formula, coffee, juices, other beverages or ice. It also should be used for washing fruits and vegetables, bathing infants, washing open wounds, brushing teeth, watering pets and rinsing dishes.
Lastly, get informed about your community’s ongoing water issues, including conservation needs, pollution threats and infrastructure upgrades. Municipalities are required to issue annual Consumer Confidence Reports with detailed information about the quality of drinking water supply during the past year. At first glance, the reports look somewhat complicated, but with a few minutes of study they are relatively simple to understand.
Photo credit: TF28 via Flickr