Many Iowans may not know what is in their water because their wells’ water quality is unregulated.
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.
IowaWatch investigated the condition of private well water for a series of reports in the series Crisis in our Wells. Here is your guide to those reports:
Roughly 288,000 Iowans rely on private water supplies but may not know what is in their water because their wells’ water quality is unregulated. That could put their health, and the health of their families at risk.
Ingested arsenic is associated with increased risks of certain types of cancer and with diabetes and cardiovascular and neurological issues. Starting in July 2015, a state Grants to Counties program began including arsenic testing along with bacteria and nitrate testing.
Iowa law does not require private well water quality to meet any drinking water standards but wells fall under a handful of different regulations. This story tells you what you need to know about permit requirements in Iowa.
Sometimes Iowans don’t take action even when they test their private wells and find unsafe water. A state Grants to Counties program plays a huge role getting people to test their wells and understand their water quality, giving counties money to cover administrative costs, test wells and other well safety services.
A consumer information booklet produced by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources lists potential contaminants that include nitrate, bacteria, sulfur, fluoride, arsenic, lead and radionuclides, which are carcinogenic radioactive elements that occur as uranium and thorium isotopes decay.
Testing on private wells through the Iowa’s Grants to Counties program is recorded in a Private Well Tracking System database maintained by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The database, in use since 2003, also includes information about things like well depth, age, location and construction, when it is known.
The most recent statewide study of Iowa’s private wells, the Iowa Statewide Rural Well Water Survey Phase 2, found that nearly half of wells had detectible levels of nitrogen, bacteria or arsenic.
Lead-based paint and paint dust are a much larger concern than lead exposure through drinking water in Iowa, experts who spoke with IowaWatch said. As with many contaminants, the only way to know if drinking water contains lead is to have it tested, because lead has no taste or smell.
Russ Tell, senior environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, points to two main goals when plugging up old wells: protecting the aquifer and safety.
HOW WE DID THIS STORY
Reporter Lauren Mills Shotwell spent 10 months doing research and testing rural well water quality in Iowa and learning how to conduct well water tests before deciding to focus on southwest Iowa. Working with five county sanitarians and interviewing several others and specialists she contacted rural residents whose drinking water came from private wells. Using Fund for Investigative Journalism grant money she tested 28 wells in May and June. The State Hygienic Lab at the University of Iowa analyzed the results. IowaWatch then shared the results with the residents willing to have their wells tested for this project.
Shotwell, IowaWatch’s first paid full-time digital analyst/reporter, became news director of Little Village magazine in Iowa City in September 2016.