A rural water supply main doesn’t run by Jamie and Bradley Stephens’ southwest Iowa home in Mills County. “If it did, I would hook into it in a heartbeat,” said Jamie Stephens, as she battled in late May to get safe drinking water from a well overtopped for a week this spring by Missouri River floodwaters.
Contamination of private well water in southwest Iowa from human and natural causes is a problem even in dry times. But in this year of prolonged flooding, well owners have heightened concerns and are keeping county health officials busy testing water for contaminants such as coliform and E. coli bacteria, nitrates and arsenic. More well owners are availing themselves of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources program that pays for private well testing.
The flood has not caused a huge spike in levels of coliform and E. coli bacteria, nitrates and arsenic in the region, according to state and county environmental health officials interviewed by IowaWatch, but many well owners face challenges in keeping their water safe to drink.
After pumping four feet of water from their 15 year-old home’s basement, the Stephenses had to wait “until water quit shooting out of the top of the wellhead,” to get the well back in operation, Jamie Stephens said. The artesian effect was caused by hydrostatic pressure in the saturated soil around the well.
The Stephenses had the well tested twice in May and shocked it with disinfectants repeatedly, following recommendations from their county sanitarian.
In a text this past week, Stephens wrote: “We are still working on getting everything bad out of the water. Not drinkable yet. Shocked the well twice and waiting for the test results from the last shock to see if it’s clear to drink.”
MORE WELLS GETTING TESTED
Statistics compiled by Russell Tell, a senior environmental specialist who works with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Private Well Testing program, show well owners increasingly are concerned with water quality. In the period of March 15, when the flooding started, through May 30, Mills County submitted invoices for testing of 104 water samples, compared to 67 in the same period last year.
Harrison County billed for 29 tests, up from 19 the year before. Pottawattamie County billed for 91 tests, up 78% from 51 last year. Fremont and Monona counties recorded declines, but Tell cautioned that timing easily can skew the statistics. County environmental officers wear many hats and have been especially busy in flood-stricken areas, so they may not have stopped long enough to bill the DNR for reimbursement for well tests.
Mills County Environmental Specialist Mike Sukup had tested 161 private well samples by May 28, compared to 200 all of last year. “Most of my water tests have been from the flood area. Results are mixed,” he said. “We had coliform and E. coli. Some had all of it, nitrates plus arsenic.”
“On those that haven’t been flooded, not seeing worse results than normal,” he added.
SOME FLOOD IMPACTS INDICATED
Well expert Michael Schnieders, president of Ottawa, Kansas-based Water Systems Engineering, warns that the worst impacts on private wells are yet to be revealed. “There’s still a lot of standing water. The longer wells are underwater, the worse those impacts are,” he said.
Several concerns for wells have been compromised by flooding, he said. “Any one of them can be dangerous in its own right.”
TIPS FOR CLEANING A CONTAMINATED WELL
Michael Schnieders, president of Ottawa, Kansas-based Water Systems Engineering, advises calling a licensed well contractor in cases of obvious physical damage to a private well, such as eroded aprons and off-kilter wellheads. Shutting off power to the well is a must to avoid electrical shock.
He also advised “pumping the well to waste,” catching a sample in a clear container and examining it for sediment, cloudiness, chemicals and organic debris, including bugs and tadpoles. Wells should be pumped until they run clear and samples taken to county environmental health officers for testing.
Shocking wells with 100 to 200 parts per million of chlorine is advised to bring down bacteria counts to safe levels.
“When it comes to chlorine, the idea that ‘if a little is good, a lot’s got to be better,’ is not true,” Schnieders said. Too much chlorination can over-oxidize bacteria, creating a bloom, and wasting money, he said.
— Emery Styron/IowaWatch
Intact wells are at risk for fouling by sediment and debris. Naturally occurring bacteria and iron can increase and nutrients applied as fertilizer can get into the aquifers, so great care should be taken to ensure water is safe to drink, Schnieders said.
Mills County’s Sukup and his Fremont County counterpart, Erman Mullins, said they haven’t seen that worst-case scenario play out. “I’m not seeing anything real bad,” Mullins said in late April. Of recent well tests, most showed coliform and E. coli bacteria levels at acceptable levels of at less than 1 milligram per liter and only one that’s been over 10 on nitrates.
A month later, two of 10 recent tests showed water over the acceptable bacteria levels and one with nitrates at 13 milliliters per liter, too high for exposure to infants.
Test results he’s seen over the last five years show that flood waters have affected some private wells, “but I’m not seeing anything that makes me think there is something really wrong,” Tell said.
In 2019, for example, the private well statewide average for tolerable rates of total coliform bacteria was 77.21%. Monona, Pottawattamie and Mills counties have tested in the 72% to 74% range. The same counties tested at equal to or above the state average for E. coli.
More alarmingly, rates for acceptable nitrate levels for infants fell well below the state average of 92.87% in three of the counties. Monona County came in at 85%, Harrison County at 86.21% and Mills County at 85.64%.
The state averages themselves are cause for concern. Nearly 23% of private wells tested in 2019 had higher than recommended levels of coliform bacteria, more than 3% were above the safe level for E. coli and more than 7% exceeded the safe infant level for nitrates.
PRIVATE WELL OWNERS TAKE ACTION
IowaWatch reporter Lauren Shotwell tested water for 28 private well owners in southwest Iowa in 2016, finding 15 with unsafe bacteria levels and 13 with nitrate levels above 40. Some well owners recontacted this spring continue to face issues with their water:
- Luke Buttry, whose wife, Kathy, operates a daycare in their Fremont County home, said their water tests failed again, so they use bottled water. Ideal Pure Water delivers water in five-gallon jugs for about $50 per month, he said. The Buttrys’ water in 2016 tested as high in lead, but under safe limits for total coliform, E. coli and nitrates.
- Brian Arkfield of Shelby County, whose water had a nitrate level of 168 in 2016, compared to a level considered safe of 45, said, “we had it retested and it came back good.” He has chlorinated the water and changed filters in the basement. “We’re feeling good about that,” he said.
- After relying on a reverse osmosis system to purify their well water plagued by high nitrates, Pottawattamie County residents Connie and Dale Schroder spent $5,000 to 6,000 to hook their home to Avoca-based Regional Water Inc.’s system last year. They continue to use well water for their livestock.
“Now we’re paying double costs,” Connie Schroder said. They pay a $53 per month minimum to Regional Water and still bear the upkeep and operating costs for the well.
Schroder, who had thyroid cancer a year ago, is still wary. “The taste of rural water isn’t as good,” she said, and she wonders if the piped in water is any safer. “How do you know?” she asked.
Regional Water’s “2019 Quality On Tap Report” for 2018 testing results released May 18 shows no violations for a wide variety of contaminants. Nitrates measured at 2.9 milligrams per liter, compared to the more than 45 milligrams per liter shown in their private well tests.
Jenny and Craig Melvin’s well tested at 74 milligrams per liter of nitrogen when they moved into their home near Farragut in 2016. Total coliform bacteria were present, too, another concern with a newborn in the household. “It’s still high in nitrates,” Craig Melvin said recently about new tests they took last summer.
“Bacteria came back, too. We shock once or twice a year to try to help it,” he said. The Melvins also rely on bottled water for drinking.
The floods this spring didn’t reach their well, which is just 300 feet from a creek. “The creek was pretty high for awhile. That probably affected the water,” Melvin said. “I’m not as educated as I should be. It’s my understanding the nitrates are from the farmers and chemicals and such.”
Though rural water runs in front of their house, the $5,000 cost to hook on puts it out of reach, Melvin said. “We’re not planning to do anything different at this moment unless some assistance becomes available. They don’t have an in-house treatment system. “It comes right out of the well and right out of the faucets,” he said.
Sukup said issues with well water vary with location. Recent news reports of high nitrate levels in the Malvern’s city water supply prompted area residents with private wells to have their water tested. Of 77 wells tested in April, seven were found with elevated nitrate levels, he said. The nitrates in this case are naturally occurring, and many well owners at higher elevations found few problems, he said.
In any case, he recommends having your well water tested annually. “Some people think if I tell you that you have bad water, you’ll tell me I have to drill a new well,” Sukup said. But residents are learning that the test results are good information for their own decision-making, he said.
Sukup is a fan of giving counties DNR grants that pay for private well water testing. “It’s a really good program that not enough people take advantage of,” he said.
As the wet month of May ended, the Stephenses in Mills County still were shocking their well and relying on a reverse osmosis system to remove high iron content and bacteria from their drinking water. They were also keeping a wary eye on the weather and Missouri River three-and-a-half miles to the west.
“We’re in danger of getting flooded again,” Jamie Stephens said. “If that happens, we’ll have to start over.”
Emery Styron is a freelance reporter from Riverside, Iowa.
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This story also was re-published by The Des Moines Register, The Courier (Waterloo, IA), Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Missouri Valley Times News, The Mapleton Press; AZCentral.com and MSN.com under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.