Provided by Iowa Watch 

Moreover, many well owners IowaWatch spoke with during an investigation this past year in counties across southwest Iowa said they largely were unconcerned about their wells, even though tests revealed high levels of nitrates and bacteria in some of their wells.

That could put their health, and the health of their families, at risk.

IowaWatch spent the past year researching wells and testing samples looking at four common contaminants: nitrogen, bacteria, arsenic and lead and, similar to a number of scientific studies in the past, found a large percentage of wells with high nitrate and bacteria levels.

Nitrate levels in 28 wells IowaWatch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization, tested in May and June ranged from the acceptable level of less than 1 milligrams per liter to, at one rural home, 168 milligrams per liter.

The State Hygienic Lab measures nitrogen levels using nitrate (NO3) and the acceptable level for that under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health standards is 45 milligrams per liter, although the level usually referenced for nitrogen is 10 milligrams per liter.

Eleven of the wells IowaWatch tested in May and June had nitrate levels above 45 milligrams per liter. Two more tested at 43. Fifteen wells showed unsafe bacteria levels. A handful also had trace amounts of arsenic and lead.

Many county sanitarians who test well water for common contaminants like bacteria and nitrogen said they struggle to get well owners to understand the importance of testing their water regularly, even if it looks, smells and tastes fine.

“What’s out of sight is out of mind,” said Sherry Storjohann, an environmental health specialist who has been testing wells in Iowa’s Crawford and Carroll counties for the past 25 years.

“I have so many people with hand-dug wells that say they’ve got the best tasting water, the clearest water, the coldest water,” she said. “Yet, what they realize after they test is just how unsafe that water is.”

Contaminants have many sources

While some contaminants – like bacteria – may not necessarily be a health concern in-and-of-itself, they are an indicator of a well susceptible to contamination from the outside. Outside contaminants can include runoff from agricultural fields, septic system leaks and animal infestations, such as when mice, snakes or other creatures crawl into an unsealed well. In some cases, natural events like flooding can also pose a risk to a well.

High levels of nitrogen pose a health risk to infants in the form of blue-baby syndrome, and some studies have shown increased risks for some types of cancers, reproductive issues, diabetes and thyroid conditions.

Arsenic and lead both pose a largely unknown risk at low levels. The Environmental Protection Agency puts maximum contaminant level goals, at which there is no known or expected health risk, at zero for both arsenic and lead.

Infants and children exposed to elevated levels of lead could be impacted by delays in physical or mental development and adults can face higher risks of kidney problems and high blood pressure. Elevated levels of arsenic increase risks of skin damage or problems with circulatory systems, and may increase risks of cancer.

Iowans who wish to test their well may do so through a number of different channels, including requesting a kit from a laboratory like the State Hygienic Lab at the University of Iowa, taking a sample and sending it in. Or, in 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties, they can go through their county sanitarian and use a program called the Iowa Grants to Counties Program.

Testing, just to be safe

When Jenny and Craig Melvin moved into their home outside Farragut, they tested their well through their local county sanitarian. Results came back with high nitrogen levels – 74 milligrams per liter – and total coliform bacteria present. They shocked the well, which cleared up the bacteria, but the nitrates still were there.

With one infant in the house, both Jenny Melvin and the newborn used bottled water.

“He was a preemie, so I just wanted to be extra careful,” Jenny Melvin said. “And whatever I take in, he takes in.”

IowaWatch testing also showed the Melvins had slightly elevated levels of arsenic and lead in their water – 0.002 milligrams per liter for both contaminants. Although the goal would be to have these contaminant levels at zero, the action level for lead in regulated, public water supplies is 0.015 milligrams per liter, and for arsenic the maximum contaminant level is 0.010 milligrams per liter.

Although the two previously lived in town, with town water, they grew up in the country with well water. They said they’ve enjoyed not having a monthly bill and being able to do things like fill up an above-ground pool for their kids over the course of about four or five days without worrying about cost and without running out of water.

The water from their well comes straight into the house without filtration. Craig Melvin said he’s not the type to get too concerned about the water, although he pointed to the location of the well as cause for some concern. It’s about 800 feet from the house in a low point in the landscape, surrounded by fields, near a runoff ditch.

“It doesn’t smell bad or taste bad, so I’m not too worried about it, which isn’t necessarily the best thing,” Craig Melvin said. “We should probably be more concerned about what’s in it.”

Grants to counties

Iowa’s Grants to Counties Program, established in 1987 when the state Legislature passed the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, provides funds for local county health departments to be used for an array of well-related services.

The program has several players, including the Bureau of Environmental Health Services in the Iowa Department of Public Health, which takes care of the financial administration, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which takes care of some of the technical aspects like well contractor certification and maintaining a database of wells and water test results.

All but one of Iowa’s 99 counties – MarshallCounty – participate. Carmily Stone, bureau chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health Services in the Iowa Department of Public Health, said the program was among her favorites of the services she oversees.

“In public health, we prevent a lot of things and so we can’t necessarily see the impact because prevention means it never happens, right?,” she said. “But for this one, you can see the water tests being done. You can see the results that come back. You can see the wells that are plugged. You can see all of that good work happening.”

The amount of money available through a grant, which comes from pesticide and fertilizer taxes, varies each year and is split evenly among counties. The funding can be used to cover private well water tests and administrative costs for, at minimum, total coliform bacteria and total nitrate tests, with an additional option added in 2015 that allows counties to perform arsenic testing.

Counties also can use the grant to cover well-related training expenses up to $1,000, up to $500 for the cost of supplies and up to $1,000 for advertising and promotions to let people know about the availability of the well services. The grant does not cover expenses for water treatment systems.

Some counties may choose to put all of the money into testing and services like plugging or reconstruction, while some divvy up the funds for supplies, training and promotional expenses as well.

“Some counties don’t spend all of their money, and some counties go through their money rather quickly,” Stone said.

She said the reason for different spending patterns may be based on the number of wells in a county, with less-rural areas or areas that have a rural water utility facing smaller demand for private well water services. In some cases, the reason may also stem from a lack of manpower.

“Some environmental health departments are just one person, and that one person is doing well permitting, septic permitting, possibly doing other inspections in their county,” Stone said. “So sometimes there’s just not enough manpower or person-time to go out and carry out the services.”

In visits with county sanitarians across southwest Iowa, IowaWatch observed some who covered multiple counties and responded to calls for well tests, pool water tests and tanning bed inspections, to name a few.

While talking with IowaWatch in her office this past summer Shelby County Environmental Health Director Terri Daringer, who has been testing wells for 23 years, often was interrupted by the ringing of her phone. In addition to testing and permitting for wells and septic systems in Shelby County, her office handles food inspections for seven counties as well as swimming pool, tanning bed and tattoo parlor inspections in four counties.

“It works,” she said. “It’s busy, but I’d rather be busy.”

Key reasons to test

Mills County Sanitarian Mike Sukup said he tests about 150 to 200 wells a year. A portion of those tests are people who get their wells tested regularly, but he said sometimes people are spurred to test their water when a family member gets sick or when they have kids.

Richard and Ruth Miller said they’d been hearing about other people with contaminated wells and thought they should get their well checked, especially since they have grandkids coming over every week. The Millers live near SilverCity. IowaWatch tests this past summer showed bacterial unsafe levels of coliform bacteria at their home but barely a trace of nitrogen and no e.coli.

“Some e.coli and nitrogen is probably not going to hurt me,” Richard Miller said.

Still, they had their 1950s-era well rehabilitated after testing results came up in 2012 that showed unsafe levels of total coliform bacteria and they have their well tested regularly. They had their well tested for arsenic last year and the results came back negative, despite a smattering of wells in the area that tested positive, Sukup said.

Although they have it tested, they said they don’t worry much about their water. “Nothing beats good, old country water,” Ruth Miller said.

Threats vary between wells

Connie Schroder, who lives near Avoca, has had her water tested periodically in their well, built in 1920 and only about 40 feet deep, since the 1990s.

She watched the nitrate results slowly tick upwards – from a safe 33 milligrams per liter, to 71 milligrams per liter in 1995 and 63 milligrams per liter in 1997, both of which are above the health advisory level of 45. In 1998, Schroder installed a reverse osmosis system on the kitchen tap and has used one ever since. IowaWatch tests at Schroder’s well this past summer indicated no coliform bacteria or e.coli.

“I was having babies and wondering if we could use that water for formula. That’s what caused me to test it. That’s what was bothering me, the kids,” she said.

Switching to rural water

Several well owners IowaWatch spoke with talked about switching to rural water utilities, which pipe water to areas previously not served by municipal water and are required to test their water frequently. But for many, not having to pay that monthly water bill is a strong incentive to stick with well water.

Judy Strandburg’s shallow, hand-dug, 1930s-era well near Schleswig in CrawfordCounty occasionally shows unsafe bacteria levels and somewhat elevated nitrate levels. Last summer, it tested at 46 milligrams per liter of nitrates, just one unit higher than the health advisory level. She keeps goats in the field surrounding her well but put up a fence to keep the animals, and their manure, away from the wellhead.

“Sometimes I think it keeps me healthy,” she said of her water. “I’ll probably never do anything with the well. I’d maybe just get hooked up to rural water, but I have so much water out here – and I would hate to have that monthly bill.”

Theresa Schlorholtz and her husband, John, periodically test their water from their sand-point well. The well goes about 23 feet deep into a shallow aquifer off the Missouri River, which flows just about a mile from their Fremont County home near Percival. They tested their water a while back and found high total coliform bacteria levels.

“We were shocked,” John Schlorholtz said.

“If you haven’t had a problem in 30-some years, you don’t think about it,” Theresa Schlorholtz added. IowaWatch tests during the summer showed safe levels for bacteria, e.coli and nitrogen.

They said a rural water utility, Southwest Regional Water District, was collecting information in the area, but they weren’t sure if they were interested, although Theresa Schlorholtz said she would consider it for health safety reasons because water utilities test more often.

But hooking up to rural water utilities isn’t always an option.

Ben Schaben and his wife Jena moved into their house in Defiance along with their three kids a little more than a year ago and found the well has both high nitrate levels and bacteria. He said they had plans to put in a reverse osmosis system and a UV light to help address the issues, although a new well might be in the cards in the future.

“Rural or town water doesn’t quite come close enough,” he said. “We wish it was an option.”

– This story was produced by the IowaCenter for Public Affairs, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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