We don’t all have the benefit of being joined up to a municipal water source. For some people, for practical or geographical reasons, it’s not possible; and for others it’s a lifestyle choice. Many people like the idea of being self-sufficient and establishing their own water supply.
Across America, over 15 million people use groundwater-fed private wells, living off-grid and off the pipeline map that stretches across the country.
Ground water is rainfall that has moved downwards through the surface layer of soil and rocks until it reaches a layer of rock so dense that it can move no further. Some of the rainfall will be used by plants and tree roots, but what remains can be drilled for available ground water.
All sounds very natural and healthy, so where is the danger? After all there’s no risk of aging pipework leaking lead or chemicals into your water supply, a worry which millions of Americans face every day.
Before we deal with that, let’s take a quick look at the three main types of well.
As the name suggests, dug wells are the most basic type of well and created simply by manually digging a relatively shallow pit (around 10 – 30 feet deep), and lining it with bricks, tiles or stones.
This is a deeper hole of up to 50 feet, and is usually made using light machinery.
The deepest type of well, these can be up to 400 feet deep with metal or plastic casing.
The shallower the well, the more likely it is to become contaminated, but no well is altogether safe from that risk.
Off Grid, No Rules Apply
While some local governments have safe practice or possibly some regulatory powers, owning a private well means that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates public water systems, has no jurisdiction over private wells. Some see this as a plus point, but the reality is that without water experts checking the water source and quality, the onus is very much on the owner of the well to ensure that their water is safe to use and drink.
What Might Contaminate Well Water?
There will always be unpredictable hazards, but the regular ones that well owners must guard against are:
Flowing rainwater that might have picked up contaminants
- Livestock waste
- Septic tanks
- Manure runoff
- Any fuel tanks nearby
In order help private well owners to drink safely from their wells, the EPA has an interactive map so that details of water well programs pertaining to different states can be easily accessed.
While there is guidance about how a well should be built, sited and maintained; with more and more reliance on fertilizers, pesticides and chemical treatments for livestock, the risk of groundwater becoming contaminated increases.
Private well owners must test regularly for pollutants, microbes, bacteria, chemicals, nitrate and acidity levels, among other things. Give the high stakes when it comes to whether the well water is safe to drink, it’s usually advisable to get an expert to carry out the testing. However, while there are cheap test kits available via the internet, people are tempted to cut corners, and save money.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has an index of water born contaminants and symptoms, which makes for sobering reading. From data gathered between 1971 and 2010, the most commonly reported outbreaks were:
- Hepatitis A
- Campylobacter, E Coli (tied for position)
- Cryptosporidium, Salmonella (tied for position)
- Arsenic, Gasoline, Nitrate, Phenol, Selenium (tied for position)
Many of the contaminants found in improperly maintained wells can lead to gastrointestinal illness that might be extremely dangerous to someone with a compromised immune system, or the very young or elderly. Some toxins can result in reproductive or neurological disorders; and all of these ailments carry potentially catastrophic outcomes.
It’s also hard to simply look at a well and make a decision about whether the structure itself is safe and likely to keep both pollution at bay, and store the water safely until it is consumed or used. Again, expert help is needed to examine the structure and integrity of the components. For example, corroded metal or solder might leach harmful toxins into the water and any nearby construction work might also affect the well’s structure.
Times Have Changed, So Must we
Many people come from families that have lived ‘off grid’ for generations and might disagree with the recommendations that well water is filtered and boiled before drinking. However, in years gone by, there was no – or minimal – risk of pollutants, chemical pesticides and herbicides to contend with. There was no fracking, no deep-earth construction and landfill sites filled with millions of tons of manmade waste, slowly releasing their decomposing elements into the earth; and ultimately into the groundwater that fills private wells across America.