Municipalities spend millions of dollars annually to treat drinking water, which is tested for contaminants quarterly ― sometimes more ― and is regulated. Homeowners are responsible for maintaining their wells and testing for contaminants such as nitrates, total coliform bacteria, arsenic and PFAS.
The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions to the biggest issues facing our community, including the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. For this story, the newspaper talked with local groundwater experts about private wells and the importance of testing them for contaminants regularly.
Some homeowners use private wells because they live in rural areas without access to a public utility or they believe municipal water is more expensive.
Private wells can’t be ignored, said Thomas Hut, Bureau of Special Services supervisor at Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County.
“It takes a little bit of maintenance, like anything on your home,” Hut said.
He also encouraged residents to consider switching, if possible, to a public system that’s tested, treated and regulated, Hut and other area ground water experts say.
Most groundwater doesn’t require treatment
Most of the water in Ohio’s aquifers is safe to use without treatment, said Jim Raab, geology program supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ division of geological survey. However, well owners should look at prior and current land uses around their property to determine what level of concern they may have for certain contaminants, he said. For instance, if an old industrial site is nearby, well owners may want to test for metals or volatile organic compounds, he said.
In addition, they should make sure that the cap on their well is secure and that there is no surface water ponding around the well after it rains. Doing so will minimize the possibility of surface water getting directly into the well, Raab said.
How many private wells are there in our region?
State and local governments do not regulate private wells, although counties’ health departments issue permits for new ones. So they can’t always track the number of wells there are, as some people tend to convert them for other uses such as farming, which does not require a permit. In addition, thousands of wells existed long before counties created databases to track them, said Brad King, supervisor of private sewage and water programs for the Warren County Combined Health District.
Warren County issues an average of 60 well permits per year, and has issued 11 so far in 2021, he said.
Montgomery County has about 15,000 private wells, based on the latest records from several years ago, and it issued 80 permits in 2020. It has issued five so far this year.
Clark County officials said they have no record of the total number of private wells that exist. But several years ago officials estimated as many as 22,000 household sewage treatment systems exist in the county, said Shannon M. Hackathorne of the Clark County Combined Health District. In most cases, homes with household sewage treatment systems also have private drinking water systems, she said.
The State of Ohio has 865,687 wells dating back to the early 1940s, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The agency said it does not keep track of which wells are still in use, and not all are used for drinking water.
‘Water sampling is a snapshot in time’
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that well owners test their water at least once a year for various contaminants. But depending on which contaminants they test for, it might be best to sample twice a year, particularly if the well’s new, Hut said.
“Water sampling is a snapshot in time, so more testing will provide a clearer picture of what’s in the well,” he said.
Water quality can change with the seasons since groundwater tends to rise and fall between summer and winter, Hut said. Therefore, well owners who opt to test twice should collect samplings once in the summer and again in the winter to further define the water quality, he recommends.
Test regularly for these contaminants
Wells tend to get contaminated numerous ways, and a myriad of toxins can seep in. But experts such as hydrologist Mike Ekberg of the Miami Conservancy District recommend testing for these five contaminants regularly — bacteria, arsenic, nitrate, manganese and lead and copper.
Bacteria: Specifically, total coliform bacteria is one of the first tests well owners should have done, said Ekberg, manager for water resource monitoring and analysis at the Miami Conservancy District. Coliform bacteria are microbes found in warm-blooded animals’ digestive systems, in soil, on plants and in surface water, according to the CDC. A positive coliform test is an indicator that the well is vulnerable to contaminants at the surface that are seeping down into the aquifer. Total coliform bacteria themselves aren’t necessarily harmful. But they could be an indication that disease-causing bacteria called pathogens are finding their way into the well, Ekberg said.
“So if you’re going to do a total coliform test, run an E coli test, too,” he said. “That’s a surefire indicator that if you have E coli, you have fecal contamination.”
Arsenic: Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in rocks and soil that can be present in groundwater. It can affect several organs, including the liver and skin; digestive, respiratory and nervous systems.
Nitrates: Nitrates commonly get into groundwater from the use of various fertilizers. So if a well is surrounded by farms, homeowners should definitely consider testing for nitrates, Ekberg said. They can cause health issues, particularly to infants and pregnant women, the CDC said. Nitrates can be removed from drinking water through treatment processes such as ion exchange, distillation and reverse osmosis, the agency said.
Manganese: It’s a naturally occurring element that can cause loss of appetite, slowed growth, reproductive issues and anemia. Some ground water in the Dayton region has elevated levels of manganese, Ekberg said.
Lead and copper: These metals also are naturally occurring but typically aren’t found in the ground water , Ekberg said. Instead, they tend to contaminate water as it goes through the plumbing system in older homes. Replacing the plumbing system will eliminate lead and copper. But if that’s too costly, another option is to flush the the water system ― if it hasn’t been used for several hours ― for up to two minutes before using, the CDC said.
What are ‘forever chemicals?’
Military bases, airports, firefighter training sites and manufacturing plants, all of which are in the Dayton region, might be PFAS sources. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all nearby wells will get contaminated with the substances ― dubbed forever chemicals for their longevity ― said Abinash Agrawal, an earth and environmental sciences professor at Wright State University.
PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, were once widely used in manufacturing, carpeting, upholstery, food packaging and other commercial and military uses. Notably, the substances were — and still are, in some places — used to extinguish fires that couldn’t be extinguished with water alone. Studies suggest that exposure to the chemical might affect pregnancy, increase cholesterol levels and cause some forms of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recently tested more than 1,500 public water systems in the state. It found that 106 of the water systems, including 24 in Southwest Ohio, had some levels of PFAS. That’s an indication that the state has a large number of PFAS contaminated sites, Agrawal said.
It’s not clear at this time how many of the wells in the communities surrounding Aullwood may be contaminated with PFAS. But if they are, it’s possible residents have been consuming the chemicals for an unknown period of time, as the toxins do not have a color, smell or taste.
“If they have access to public water systems, we highly recommend it because the public system are held to high standards” said Agrawal, who has studied ground water contamination and remediation for the past 25 years.
Average cost for testing
On average, each test costs about $20, and homeowners can test for the five basic contaminants for about $100, Hut and Ekberg said. Homeowners can choose to test for more complex, organic chemicals, they said, but that could cost as much as $1,000 annually.
Testing for PFAS alone can cost up to $1,000, so well owners should have it done only if there’s a confirmed case nearby or if they are near a potential source, experts say. Installing a treatment system if PFAS is detected can cost an additional $1,000.
Well owners who suspect that their water might be contaminated with PFAS could bypass testing and go straight to installing treatment systems to save money. The Ohio Department of Health recommends that option, particularly if households have pregnant women or other sensitive populations.
Although counties do not regulate water quality and testing for private wells, programs exist to help educate owners and assist with sampling. The Miami Conservancy District, for instance, works with the Soil and Water Conservation District, some school FFA departments and counties such as Montgomery, Greene, Clark and Warren for annual Test Your Well events.
Several state and federal grants and low interest loan programs are available to lessen the financial burden on well owners. Eligibility for some programs is based on household income and other factors.
Well owners can bring water samples to a Test Your Well event and get it tested for free for nitrates and iron on the spot, Ekberg said. But if they want additional tests for bacteria, arsenic and the like, they’ll have to pay for them, and the results will be mailed, he said.
“It really doesn’t have to be that complicated,” he said. “When we do Test Your Well events, we will help guide homeowners through the process, and it doesn’t have to be extremely expensive. I think it’s a good thing for any well owner to do.”
The event was cancelled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one has not been scheduled this year, Ekberg said.
Household Water Well Program Loans
- A household water well program low-interest loan is currently open to owner-occupied homes located in rural areas of Ohio with a household income up to a maximum of $55,216. This loan is available for water well improvements and in home water treatment systems.
- For additional information about how to qualify for the loan:
- Go to https://www.glcap.org/programs/home-rehabilitation-needs/private-well-assistance/; or
- Call 1-800-775-9767, or
- Email Angie McConnell at email@example.com.
Community Development Block Grant Funds
- Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are not allocated specifically for private water system replacement, but have been used in some Ohio jurisdictions for the repair and replacement of home water systems. Funds are generally limited to repair or replacement of failing systems, but have also been used for system abandonment and access to public water. Eligible applicants usually must income qualify and be owner/occupants.
- CDBG Contact: Your Local Board of County Commissioners
Community Housing Improvement Program
- Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) funds may be available in eligible jurisdictions. Applicants can apply for funds to address housing problems that will cover improvements to assure a safe and healthy environment, including the repair or replacement of a private water system for a home.
- CHIP Contact: Your Local Board of County Commissioners
USDA - Rural Housing and Rural Utilities Programs
- The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding is available to property owners seeking grants or low interest loans for repair or replacement of private water systems through the Rural Housing Service program under 502 Direct Loans and 504 Repair Loans and Grants. Please contact either the state or district office below for more information.
- The Rural Utilities Service also provides funds to eligible rural jurisdictions for public water projects to serve neighborhoods with a significant water supply needs (Water and Wastewater Disposal Loans and Grants).
- USDA Rural Housing Service web page: https://www.rd.usda.gov/about-rd/agencies/rural-housing-service
- Single Family Housing Repair Loan & Grants: https://www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/single-family-housing-repair-loans-grants/oh
- Ohio Office Contact: (614) 255-2400
- USDA Household Water Well System Grants: https://www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/household-water-well-system-grants
- Ohio Office Contact: (614) 255-2400
Housing and Urban Development
- The federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program may also be used to provide low interest loans to homeowners for the repair and rehabilitation of homes, and these costs may also be included as part of the home purchase depending on the final appraised value. Please contact the HUD office below for more information.
- HUD website: https://www.hud.gov/
- Cleveland: (216) 357-7900
- Columbus: (614) 469-5737