Know your well: Drinking water clinic teaches public awareness
The Conewango Creek Watershed Association, 4000 Conewango Avenue, Warren, held a free Safe Water Drinking Clinic on Wednesday, August 21.
Daniell Rhea, Water Resources Extension Educator for the PennState College of Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension (CASC Extension) out of the Jefferson County office, was invited to speak. The PennState CASC Extension is an outreach arm of the university and is an educational organization dedicated to educating people, businesses and communities about science-based information. The Extension does not teach any classes at the university itself.
The free clinic was provided a grant through the Pennsylvania Groundwater Association (PGWA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP). It was sponsored by the College of Agricultural Sources Master Well Owner Network, a Pennsylvania volunteer network for private water source protection.
Rhea discussed private water supply basics, protecting and testing your water supply, solving water problems and understanding water test results. Each participant was also invited to bring one water sample per household to be tested onsite including for bacteria, pH, total dissolved solids and nitrates.
“Groundwater is a really big resource in Pennsylvania,” said Rhea. “Over one million homes and farms use private water supplies. Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t have any regulations for private water resources or what comes out of them.” According to Rhea, 45% of private water supplies have never been tested.
Most private water supplies are fueled by groundwater, such as springs and wells, so it is important to know about your groundwater and how to properly handle it. Water from the surface goes through many, many layers of soil and rocks until it reaches a saturated aquifer under the ground.
Because it moves along the land, it is important to think about what’s going on around it and what could possibly contaminate it such as septic systems, silos and barnyards.
The best way to ensure water is safe, you must locate it properly. It is recommended to be upslope of any factors that may impact it and to keep it 100 feet from anything you wouldn’t want to see in your glass.
When building a well it is important to consider five elements: the well casing should extend at least one foot above the ground to avoid surface water penetration and should extend into the bedrock underneath the surface, have a seal around the well, be sure the ground is sloping away from the well casing and use a sanitary well cap.
Having a seal on the well casing decreases the likelihood of future surface water contamination. The casing can degrade over time due to the presence of corrosive water and the grout will prevent surface water from seeping in when this happens.
Placing a sanitary well cap on the well prevents insects and rodents that get into the well and cause contamination. A well cap has a rubber gasket seal in between the cap and the well unlike traditional well caps that have an air space present allowing “well invaders” easy access.
When using a spring as a private water source, it is important to have the following characteristics: absence of contamination sources; a collection system, a cutoff wall or system of perforated pipes located where the water is at least 3 feet below the system, to concentrate and channel the flow; a reinforced-concrete spring box with a secure cover, an overflow pipe and provisions for emptying, access and cleanout; and additional storage capacity and disinfection equipment.
Another common source of private water supplies are cisterns, a tank that collects and stores rainwater. Cisterns are common in areas that have heavily polluted groundwater.
Two main concerns with cisterns are bacteria and corrosion due to the fact that rainwater is fairly acidic. It is recommended to have at least a 5,000 gallon tank to account for the fact that it doesn’t rain.
Contaminants are placed into primary and secondary categories.
Primary contaminants are health based standards, things that if you drink too much it can make you sick in the long run.
Secondary contaminants are aesthetic in nature and not harmful but can make the water unpleasant.
The most common bacterial contaminants for springs and wells are E. Coli and Coliform.
Coliform is typically used as an “indicator organism,” indicating that groundwater is contaminating the well or spring. Most strains are not harmful and can be found on any surface.
E. Coli is only found in warm bodied organisms, an indicator that the well or spring is being contaminated by animal activity. E. Coli cis known to cause flu-like symptoms.
Other common contaminants include lead, arsenic, volatile organic compounds and pesticides.
It is recommended to test your water every 14 months, as most of the contaminants found in water supplies are undetectable with no taste, smell or color.
Testing should be done through PA DEP accredited laboratories, a list can be found on their website, https://www.dep.pa.gov.
The PennState Agricultural Analytical Services Lab also provides water testing. Prices and options can be found online at https://agsci.psu.edu/aasl/water-testing/drinking-water-testing.
The Standard Test tests for total coliform bacteria, E. Coli bacteria, pH and total dissolved solids for $50 plus shipping and handling. Individual contaminant testing starts at $10 plus shipping and handling for pH.
Kits can be found at county extension offices.
Once test results are provided, it is important to compare them to the Drinking Water Standards for all public water supplies.
If testing due to legal reason, such as drilling in the area, it is important to follow the Chain-of-Custody testing policy. A PA DEP accredited lab employee or consultant will be sent to your home to collect the water sample themselves. This rules out a bias water sample and the homeowner being blamed for possible tampering with the water sample.
If a water sample is found to be “failed,” there are steps that can be taken in order to correct the problem such as locating a new water source. This option is often considered if test results are financially and mentally straining to solve.
Pollution control is another option, if your water is positive for bacteria maybe consider widening the area around the well or spring to keep out animals.
Be sure to know exactly what’s wrong with your water before choosing a treatment option.
Options include UV sterilizers, permanent chlorination systems, softeners, carbon filters, sediment filters, oxidizing filters, acid neutralizing filters and point of use treatments, such as carbon filters on your faucet.
PennState has the H2O Solutions Private Water app that shows water testing results so you can compare with issues you’re experiencing in your area.
The PennState Extension website includes a lot of resources for water testing, https://extension.psu.edu/water. Educators are also available to call if you’re not comfortable with the computer or do not have access to one.