Climate floods pose risks to well water pollution

ST. LOUIS (AP) – After a record midwestern downpour that damaged thousands of homes and businesses, Stefanie Johnson’s home in Blandinsville, Illinois, has not had safe drinking water for nearly two months.

Floodwater spilled into her well, turning the water muddy brown and forcing Johnson, her husband, and their two young children to use store-bought supplies. Even after sediment was cleaned, testing found bacteria – including E. coli – that can cause diarrhea. The family boiled water for drinking and cooking. The YMCA was a haven for heavy rains.

“I was pretty strict with the kids,” said Johnson, who works with a private well protection program at the local health department. “I would pour bottled water on their toothbrushes.”

Although estimates vary, about 53 million U.S. residents – about 17% of the population – depends on private wells, according to a study conducted in part by researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency. Most live in rural areas. But others are in subsections near fast-growing metro areas or otherwise beyond the reach of public water pipes.

While many private wells provide safe water, the lack of regulation and treatment provided by larger municipal systems may expose some users to health risks, from bacteria and viruses to chemicals and lead, studies have found.

Risks are raised after flood or heavy rainfall, when animal and human feces, dirt, food such as nitrogen and other contaminants can seep into wells. And experts say the threat is growing as the warming climate fuels more heavy rains and stronger, more intense hurricanes.

“Areas that were not affected are now. New areas are flooded, ”said Kelsey Pieper, a professor of environmental engineering at Northeastern University. “We know the environment is changing and we’re playing catch-up, trying to raise awareness.”

Pieper is among scientists doing well test and educational programs in stormy places. After Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding along the Texas coast in 2017, sampling of more than 8,800 wells in 44 counties found average levels of E. coli nearly three times higher than normal, she said.

Sampling of 108 wells in Mississippi after Hurricane Ida in 2021 produced a similar lump in E. coli values. Other studies have shown higher levels in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence in 2018.

The following year, more than average snowfall and a March storm triggered flooding in Nebraska. Dams and dams were broken. Fremont, a town of over 25,000, became an island when the nearby Platte and Elkhorn rivers overflowed.

The municipal system continued to supply drinking water but a number of nearby private wells were damaged or contaminated. Julie Hindmarsh’s farm was flooded for three days, and it took months to make the well waterable again. Occasionally, the cleaning crew wore protective suits.

“They didn’t know what was in that floodwater,” she said.


Groundwater is often a cleaner source than surface supplies because soil can provide a protective buffer, said Heather Murphy, an epidemiologist at the University of Guelph in Canada. But she said that could give well-owners a false sense of security, forcing them to give up testing, care and treatment.

“There’s a big misconception that it’s underground, so it’s safe,” said Murphy, who an estimated 1.3 million cases of acute gastrointestinal disease in the United States are caused annually by drinking untreated water from private wells.

Old, poorly maintained wells are particularly threatened by floodwaters entering through openings at the summit. “It just runs right and it’s full of bacteria,” said Steven Wilson, a good expert at the University of Illinois.

A flood or hurricane is not always needed to pollute wells. Industrial pollution can reach them by leaking into groundwater.

About 1,000 residential wells in Kent County, Michigan have been stained for decades with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in a landfill sludge from footwear company Wolverine World Wide. The pollution, discovered in 2017, spurred lawsuits and a settlement of $ 69.5 million with the state extending downtown water lines to affected houses.

“We thought we were getting this clean, straight from natural water and it would be much better for us,” said Sandy Wynn-Stelt, who has lived across one of the landfills since the early 1990s.

She said tests detected high levels of PFAS chemicals in her water and blood, leaving her shy to drink or even brush her teeth with tap water. In a suit later arranged, she blamed the contamination on her husband’s 2016 death from liver cancer. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer four years later.


While many wells do not have the ability to connect to a public water system, others are happy with well water. They may prefer the taste or want to avoid monthly bills and government regulation.

“What I hear from people is freedom,” said Jesse Campbell, a private well coordinator for the Midwest Assistance Program Inc., which addresses rural water needs.

Private well owners are responsible for them. While public water systems must comply with federal safety standards, these rules do not apply to wells that have less than 15 connections or serve less than 25 people.

State and local standards usually involve only construction and design, although some states set stricter rules.

New Jersey requires water quality testing before selling property with private wells. Rhode Island requires testing when new wells are built and when property with a well is sold.

But many states rely on public outreach and voluntary action to protect private well users.

“There’s a general lack of education,” Campbell said. He meets with well owners from Montana to Missouri, providing free inspections and advice.

A lot of damage can be prevented if owners make sure the top of the well keeps out debris and that the pump is turned off before a storm to prevent flood water. Experts recommend testing after a flood and polluting wells with chlorine if a problem is found.

“People don’t test regularly,” said Riley Mulhern, an environmental engineer at RTI International.

The Indiana Department of Health offers testing for bacteria, lead, copper, fluoride and other contaminants. Some land-based universities and private laboratories provide similar services.

While many owners know how to take care of their wells, others ignore problems even if the water is not sanitary. Water that tastes good can still be contaminated.

“I wish I had nickel for everyone who came into work and said,‘ I’ve been drinking this water forever and it’s okay, ’” said Jason Barrett, who directs Mississippi State University program that educates well-to-do owners.

It provides free testing. But where such assistance is not available, costs can reach a few hundred dollars, according to experts. Some owners avoid testing because they are worried that it will reveal an expensive problem.

Johnson, the Illinois resident whose well was polluted by the 2013 downpour that killed four people and caused $ 465 million in flood damage, paid about $ 3,500 for repairs and upgrades.

“Fortunately, none of us got sick,” she said.

Even ordinary downpours can carry disease into groundwater, said Mark Borchardt, a former microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Many times people say, ‘Well, no one got sick,'” Borchardt said. “It’s hard to see when people get sick unless it’s a huge outbreak.”

Bea and Neil Jobe live in Primm Springs, Tennessee, an hour’s drive from Nashville. Several times a year, when there is a downpour and a nearby stream floods, their well water becomes “dirty,” Bea Jobe said.

The discoloration disappears after a few days but Jobe takes precautions on how to keep bottled water available.

“I guess I got used to it,” she said.


Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.


On Twitter follow Phillis @mjphillis and Flesher @JohnFlesher


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