What you should know about well water
If you are like more than 70% of Oregonians, some of your drinking water comes from wells and other groundwater sources. Approximately 23% of Oregonians rely on private wells as their primary source of water – to drink, to bathe in, and to cook their food. Yet this valuable water source can become contaminated.
Earlier this month the Medford Mail Tribune took a deep look at one such contaminant affecting Jackson County: arsenic.
Many local wells contain arsenic, a naturally occurring, toxic element that if consumed over time, can cause a host of health problems — skin lesions, high blood pressure, cardiovascular damage, diabetes, even cancer. Arsenic is more commonly found in Jackson County than other parts of Oregon, water quality experts say. It is odorless and tasteless. And it can be detected only through testing.
But the practice of testing wells in Jackson County is infrequent at best, state officials say.
“It’s not uncommon to hear that someone has never tested their well,” says Tara Chetock, program coordinator for the Oregon Health Authority’s Domestic Well Safety Program, which aims to spread awareness about regular well testing through partnerships with local health departments and water providers.”- Medford Mail Tribune
Jackson County is not alone. Similar problems exist across the state, but for years state agencies have not had the resources to monitor groundwater quality, so there is little information about the extent of the health threat.
Oregon’s landmark Groundwater Quality Protection Act was passed in 1989, but has never been fully implemented and is woefully underfunded. Similarly, Oregon was one of the first states to require well tests during real estate transactions, but this requirement is rarely enforced and reporting is spotty. As a result, thousands of Oregonians are unknowingly drinking water that could lead to cancer, miscarriage and other serious health risks from arsenic, nitrates and other contaminates.
What have we done about it?
In the 2015 legislative session, OEC laid the groundwork for safer drinking water by bringing landlords and tenants to the table to look into better domestic well testing standards.
What will OEC do about it in the future?
- Ensure That More Well Owners Test
One way to do this is by improving Oregon’s real estate transaction well testing requirement – giving buyers much-needed information without impeding the sale of property. This data also helps state agencies target outreach and education efforts to places with emerging groundwater contamination problems. A new testing requirement for landlords would help protect the health of renters. Testing requirements should be paired with a loan or grant program to help low-income property owners repair wells or install water treatment systems when necessary.
- Reduce Septic Tank Pollution
Failing septic systems can pollute drinking water with pharmaceuticals and cleaning chemicals in addition to nitrates and bacteria. Oregon has a new education program encouraging real estate agents to recommend testing septic systems during property transactions. We do not yet know yet whether this voluntary program is effective and an inspection requirement may be necessary. In addition, low-income homeowners need financial assistance to repair or replace failing septic systems, or connect to city sewers.
- Expand Education and Funding for Well Testing and Groundwater Protection
As the Medford Mail Tribune article points out, mail-order kits can test for a broad range of chemicals. An arsenic test on its own costs about $45. Samples also can be sent to laboratories for testing. Oregon Health Authority recommends testing annually for arsenic, bacteria and nitrate. The more elements you test for, the higher the price tag. Oregon can and should provide support for homeowners and landlords looking to test their wells.
What can you do now?
- Educate yourself: The Oregon Water Resources Department and the Oregon Health Authority have partnered to release a revised 2015 Well Owner’s Handbook. The new handbook now includes health information on common contaminants, testing recommendations and more. Every well owner should have this resource in their files.
- Test: Test your well. Assistance is available in some areas:
- NORTH COAST: Do you live in Oregon’s North Coast and have a well? Free testing is available to a limited number of participants. More info here.
- LANE COUNTY: Marist High School (Monitoring Program) and Thurston High School (WELL Project) students in LANE County are proud to provide, as a community service, free testing to anyone who drops off samples.