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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Climate-driven flooding poses well contamination risk

by Michael Fils and John Fleischer | The Associated Press

scheduled tribe. LOUIS — After a record-setting Midwestern rainstorm that damaged thousands of homes and businesses, Stephanie Johnson’s farmhouse in Blandinsville, Illinois, didn’t have safe drinking water for nearly two months.

Flood water poured into her well, turning the water muddy brown and forcing Johnson, her husband and their two young children to use store-bought supplies. Even after the sediment was cleared, the test found bacteria—including E. coli, that can cause diarrhea. The family boiled water for drinking and cooking. The YMCA was a rain shelter.

“I was very strict with the kids,” said Johnson, who works with a private well conservation program at the local health department. “I’ll put bottled water on their toothbrush.”

Although estimates vary, approximately 53 million US residents — about 17% of the population — rely on private wells, according to a study by Environmental Protection Agency researchers. Most live in rural areas. But others are in subdivisions near fast-growing metro areas or otherwise out of reach of public water pipes.

While many private wells provide safe water, the absence of regulation and treatment afforded by large municipal systems can expose some users to health risks, from bacteria and viruses to chemicals and lead, studies have found. .

The risk increases after floods or heavy rainfall, when animal and human faeces, dirt, nutrients such as nitrogen and other contaminants can seep into the well. And experts say the danger is growing as the warmer climate fuels more intense rain and promotes stronger and wetter storms.

“The areas which were not affected, they are now. New areas are flooding,” said Kelsey Pepper, a Northeastern University professor of environmental engineering. “We know the environment is changing and we’re trying to raise awareness.”

Pepper is among scientists who conduct well testing and education programs in hurricane-prone areas. He noted that Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding along the Texas coast in 2017, with an average E. coli levels were found to be about three times higher than normal, she said.

A sample from 108 wells in Mississippi after Hurricane Ida in 2021 produced a similar bump in E. coli readings. Other studies reached higher levels in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence in 2018.

The following year, higher-than-average snowfall and March storms flooded Nebraska. Dams and dams were broken. Fremont, a city of over 25,000, turned into an island when the nearby Platte and Elkhorn rivers were in spate.

The municipal system continued to supply drinking water but some of the surrounding private wells were damaged or contaminated. Julie Hindmarsh’s field was flooded for three days and it took months for the well water to be potable again. At times the scavengers wore protective suits.

“They didn’t know what was in that flood water,” she said.

contamination risk

Groundwater is often a cleaner source than surface supplies because soil can provide a protective buffer, said Heather Murphy, an epidemiologist at the University of Guelph in Canada. But she said it could give well owners a false sense of security, forcing them to skip testing, maintenance and treatment.

“There’s a huge misconception that it’s underground, so it’s safe,” said Murphy, who estimates that 1.3 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness in the US are caused annually by drinking untreated water from private wells.

Old, poorly maintained wells are especially vulnerable to flood water entering through openings at the top. “It runs fine and it’s full of bacteria,” said Steven Wilson, a fine specialist at the University of Illinois.

It doesn’t always take floods or storms to pollute wells. Industrial pollution can seep into the groundwater and reach them.

Nearly 1,000 residential wells in Michigan’s Kent County were stained for decades with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in landfill sludge from footwear company Wolverine World Wide. The pollution, discovered in 2017, led to lawsuits and a $69.5 million settlement with the state that extended the city’s water lines to affected homes.

“We thought we were getting this pristine, straight-to-nature water and it would be a lot better for us,” said Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who has lived at one of the dump sites since the early 1990s. .

She said tests revealed high levels of PFAS chemicals in her water and blood, which made her afraid to drink or even brush her teeth with well water. In a lawsuit that was later settled, she blamed the contamination for her husband’s death from liver cancer in 2016. Four years later she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

A little regulation for well owners

While many well owners do not have the option of connecting to a public water system, others are happy with well water. They may be in favor of taste or want to avoid monthly bills and government regulation.

“What I hear from people is freedom,” said Jesse Campbell, private well coordinator for Midwest Assistance Program Inc., which addresses rural water needs.

Private well owners are responsible for this. While public water systems must meet federal safety standards, those rules do not apply to wells that have fewer than 15 connections or serve fewer than 25 people.

State and local standards usually only cover construction and design, although some states set strict rules.

New Jersey requires water quality testing prior to the sale of property with private wells. Rhode Island requires testing when new wells are built and when property with a well is sold.

But many states rely on public access and voluntary action to protect users of private wells.

“There’s an overall lack of education,” Campbell said. He meets with owners of wells from Montana to Missouri, providing free inspections and advice.

A lot of damage can be prevented if owners ensure that the top of the well keeps debris out and the pump is turned off before a storm to keep flood water out. Experts recommend post-flood testing and cleaning the wells with chlorine if any problems are found.

“People are not testing regularly,” said Riley Mullern, an environmental engineer at the research group RTI International.

The Indiana Department of Health offers testing for bacteria, lead, copper, fluoride, and other contaminants. Some land-grant universities and private laboratories offer similar services.

While many owners know how to maintain their wells, others overlook problems even when the water isn’t clean. Water that tastes good can still be contaminated.

“I wish I had a nickel for everyone who walked into a workshop and said, ‘I’ve been drinking this water forever and it’s fine,'” said Jason Barrett, who directs the Mississippi State University program. Which educates the owners well.

It offers free trial. But where such assistance is not available, according to experts, the cost can run up to a few hundred dollars. Some owners avoid testing because they are worried it will reveal an expensive problem.

The Johnson, Illinois resident, whose well was damaged by the 2013 rains that killed four people and caused $465 million in flood damage, paid about $3,500 for repairs and upgrades.

“Luckily, none of us got sick,” she said.

Even normal rains can carry diseases into groundwater, said Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist formerly of the US Department of Agriculture.

World Nation News Desk
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