OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Public interest growing in safety of well water

06/30/2000

CORVALLIS - An outpouring of public interest at some recent informational forums about well water suggests there are a lot of Oregonians who are concerned - often with good reason - that their drinking water is not safe, and want to find out what they can do about it.

Several "Well Water Clinics" operated by the Home-A-Syst program at Oregon State University recently concluded in the central Willamette Valley. About 1,000 concerned residents attended those and other sessions. This was "a level of interest that was far more than we had anticipated," said Gail Glick Andrews, an Extension water quality educator with the OSU Department of Bioresource Engineering.

"What this indicates to me is that people are really craving information and want to protect their home water supply," Andrews said. "The odd thing is that many of them thought they were the only ones who didn't know much about this issue. The reality is that many or most people are poorly informed."

One major step that could help address that problem, Andrews said, is new information available on the Internet that will help people learn what they can do to protect their well water supplies. The web address is http://osu.orst.edu/extension/wellwater.

According to Andrews, as many as one-fourth to one-half of the private wells in the state have surface contaminants in them. In some areas, up to three wells out of four may have problems or the users have concerns about nitrate levels.

And with summer approaching, Andrews said, the time is ideal for people to inspect their well systems, have the water tested and make any necessary changes or repairs while the weather cooperates.

"The most basic thing that people don't understand about private water supply is that they personally are the regulator, inspector, maintenance manager, accountant and consumer," Andrews said. "This is not something that's taken care of by some government agency. So if people want clean, safe water to drink from a private well, no one else is going to do anything about it."

The good news, she said, is that there are several support agencies people can look to for information to get started. County Extension offices are the best place to start, she said. They can also obtain information from the new web site, or contact Andrews via e-mail at gail.glick.Andrews@orst.edu.

Andrews said that if properly constructed and maintained, most private wells in Oregon actually produce very safe water. The natural filtering action of soil tends to control bacteria and viruses. Problems are most common with any well-drained soil that speeds the movement downward of surface contaminants, especially in agricultural areas that are heavily fertilized.

Testing for coliform bacteria and nitrate levels every one to three years is recommended, Andrews said, and contrary to common assumptions, taste is not a good indicator of water quality. Some crystal clear water can be contaminated and some foul-tasting water can be fine.

The Extension literature outlines a number of fairly simple things homeowners can do to help protect their well water. They include:

  • Locate your well, septic tank and drain field, as the first step towards managing and protecting these areas.
  • Have your septic tank pumped about every three to five years, depending on household usage patterns.
  • Remove any chemicals stored in your well house, and protect the soils around your property from contamination by oil, gasoline and household chemicals.
  • Make sure there is no water standing around the top of your well.
  • Ensure that a sanitary seal caps your well, to keep out foreign objects and surface contaminants.

Andrews said that the informational and educational programs she works with will continue their efforts around Oregon, and more community educational forums will be planned.

"The main thing people need to keep in mind is that they personally are responsible for making sure their well water is safe, and that they do need to be informed about the issues," Andrews said. "But there is plenty of information available to help, and often some fairly simple changes are all that's needed to correct any problems that are found."