Click here to go to the Home Page

October 12, 2003

Health risks can lurk in private wells
by Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World-Herald

A Grand Island neighborhood has learned a hard truth about Nebraska: In a state heavily dependent on well water, if you don't get your water from a public well, you may not know what's in it.

And even in communities where water is tested regularly, there have been rude awakenings.

More than 50 private wells in the southwest Grand Island area have tested above federal drinking water standards for solvents, some more than 25 times the limit.

For the most part, state experts say, Nebraska groundwater is of good to excellent quality. But as some Grand Island residents have learned, that isn't always the case.

"This kind of thing is not particularly an anomaly," said Roy Spalding, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who studies groundwater and contamination.

Hastings, Waverly, Bruno and Ogallala are among communities that are having groundwater cleaned up through the federal Superfund program.

Hall County has two nationally listed Superfund sites, one in Grand Island and one west of town. The federal Superfund program is assisting state and local officials with their investigation of this latest site.

What these communities generally have in common is the proximity of industry and businesses to municipal or private wells.

Heavy manufacturing, large dry cleaning establishments, old grain elevators, electronics manufacturing and old munitions plants are the general sources of industrial contamination of groundwater in Nebraska.

Overall in Nebraska, nitrates and bacterial contamination are the larger problems, with the sources generally being such things as livestock, septic tanks and fertilizer.

Groundwater contamination is difficult to detect. It's hidden from view, the original source of pollution may not be obvious and years can pass before pollution migrates into a well.

"There are spots of high contamination," said Gary Mader, utilities director for the City of Grand Island. "And those spots don't show up unless you sample the water."

The city regularly tests its water for more than 120 contaminants. A routine test of a municipal well prompted the investigation that led public officials to discover the highly contaminated private wells. The source of the contamination is under investigation.

In Grand Island, the same things that make it easy to tap water for wells make the water susceptible to contamination: a high water table and porous soils.

"Anything that hits the ground," Mader said, "soaks in."

But there is no requirement, for Grand Island or anywhere in Nebraska, that residents test their own wells.

"With these private wells - where there are no regulations - people have no way of knowing what they're drinking," said Howard Isaacs, a state water official.

"Is the public need or public health being served by that? No. You're going to see us, every chance we get, saying if you can get on a public system, it will ensure your well-being and public health."

Hooking into a public water system doesn't come cheap. Extending water mains to these Grand Island residents will cost about $3,000 to $4,000 per household, Mader said.

Among public water systems, where water quality is known, a look at statistics from the Health and Human Services System underscores the reality that contamination is a continuing concern.

Currently, more than 10 percent of the state's 1,374 public water systems have enough problems with nitrates that they require stepped-up monitoring.

And 50 have serious enough problems with nitrates, total coliform, lead or copper contamination that they're under administrative review by the state. These 50 systems have to notify the public of the problem and take steps to protect public health.

The best defense a homeowner with a private well has, Isaacs said, is to be informed.

"Look at where your well is, look at its construction and the surrounding area," he said. "If at anytime something arises that causes concern, have your water tested."

If you want to test your well but blanch at the expense, Isaacs recommends that you focus on what is most likely to be in your water.

The broad test used before activating a new municipal well costs $3,500, Isaacs said. But by narrowing the focus of the tests, the costs can be greatly reduced.

Hall County, for example, is spending about $160 per well to test for the solvents that have caused problems in southwest Grand Island.

top | Home