An estimated 2.5 million Floridians rely on private wells for home drinking water, according to the Florida Department of Health (FDOH). These systems are sensitive to environmental changes, like flooding, and owners are responsible for the management, and therefore quality, of the water they drink.
We asked University of Florida water quality expert Andrea Albertin, a water resources regional specialized agent for the UF/IFAS Extension Northwest District, for must-know information that private well owners can use to best manage this vital resource.
Q. What should private well owners have their water tested for and how often should it be tested?
A. At a minimum, FDOH recommends testing drinking water annually for bacteria (total coliform bacteria and fecal coliforms, usually E. coli). They also recommend testing for nitrate, especially if you have an infant or pregnant woman in the household. Nitrate levels at and above 10 milligrams per liter can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb oxygen.
Depending on where you live and current or past activities in your area, other contaminants may affect your well water quality. Call your local health department to see if they recommend any additional tests. It’s also important to reach out to them for testing recommendations when:
- There is a change in the taste, appearance or odor of your water.
- There is recurring gastrointestinal illness or other unexplained illness in the household.
- Your well is flooded or damaged.
- You have a spill of oil, liquid fuels, solvents or other chemicals into or near your well.
- Any time services or repairs are done and the sanitary seal on your well is opened.
Q. Where can I find testing services in my area?
A. Some county health departments provide testing for bacterial contamination, at a minimum. If they do not offer testing for a particular contaminant, they can help point you to certified commercial labs in the area for testing.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) also maintains a list of certified water testing labs, which are searchable by county: floridadep.gov/dear/florida-dep-laboratory/content/nelap-certified-laboratory-search.
Q. What are some practices that can reduce the risk of contaminating well water?
A. There are several basic care measures everyone should pay attention to year-round:
- Make sure that the well is properly sealed at the surface to keep pollutants from getting directly into your well and groundwater. A sanitary seal or sanitary well cap keeps surface water, pathogens, insects and other animals, chemicals, liquid fuels and debris from getting directly into your well. Grout, which works as a sealant, is used when a well is drilled and installed to fill the space between the well casing and the edge of the borehole. It prevents surface water from flowing down along the outside of the well casing directly to the groundwater being drawn by the well.
- Keep the area around your well clean and accessible.
- Make sure there is at least 75 feet between your well and your septic system. (Note: This is required in Florida.)
- A well shouldn’t be close to – at least 100 feet away – or downhill from an animal enclosure.
- Don’t store any chemicals, fertilizers or fuel near your well or in a well house.
- Don’t use a well as a chemical mixing station.
Q. We’re coming up on hurricane season. Are there any special considerations private well owners should know about pre- or post-storm management of their water?
A. For well care before a storm, the most important thing is to make sure your well is properly sealed at the surface so that flood water can’t have a direct conduit into your well (and well water). This means having a properly functioning well cap – a sanitary seal and grout that seals off the area between the bore hole and the outside of your well casing. This is something you should have all year round.
If your well was flooded or damaged due to a storm, you should have your well water tested for bacteria to ensure it is safe for home consumption.
Q. You and Terri Keith, UF/IFAS Extension Jackson County family and consumer sciences agent, have an upcoming workshop all about private well water quality. What does it entail and how can people participate?
A. The workshop on private wells and drinking water quality is May 17 from 6-8 p.m. at the UF/IFAS Extension Jackson County office, 2741 Penn Ave. Suite 3 in Marianna.
Registration for both the workshop and the water testing is available now at tinyurl.com/JacksonCountyWellsWorkshop. The first 50 registrants will receive reduced-cost testing for bacteria; the take-home testing kit will be provided at the workshop. Contact Andrea Albertin (email@example.com, 850-875-7111) or Terri Keith (firstname.lastname@example.org, 850-482-9620) for more information.