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Rural Water Woes: Bacteria In Your Well

Oct 22, 2007
Living outside of the hustle and bustle of America's major cities certainly has its perks - no snarled traffic, less noise, less crime, clean air, clean water.


Most of the time these statements are true, but at an alarming rate rural homeowners are having trouble with their water supplies. More and more rural inhabitants are discovering that their once-pristine wells are now contaminated with bacteria. Interestingly, there has been no nation-wide assessment of the health of our rural water wells. But two smaller scale studies suggest that 20 - 40 percent of the private wells in any given area are contaminated with bacteria.

So what is a rural well owner to do? As it should be with any health related issue, the best thing you can do is educate yourself first, and take action second. So before you pour a gallon of Javex down your well, let's take a closer look at what bacterial contamination entails and what you can do to solve your problem.

Bacteria are everywhere. They carpet virtually all the surfaces we come into contact with and are found in every nook and cranny of the Earth. Most of them are harmless to humans, but a small percentage has the ability to cause disease.

The most common bacteria found in water supplies are coliform bacteria and e.coli. Coliform bacteria are a family of bacteria that are found in many places including soil. Coliform is not particularly concerning unless water supplies contain massive amounts. In any laboratory water test the presence of coliform bacteria is always investigated because its presence in a well indicates that there is a pathway through which bacteria can travel from the soil to your water. In a properly constructed and maintained well, there should be no such pathway. More about this later.

The presence of any e.coli bacteria in your water is a much more serious issue. E. coli has gained much notoriety because of several national outbreaks of the disease from contaminated ground beef. While most people are aware of the possibility of e.coli contamination in food, many people are not aware that it can turn up in a water test. E.coli contamination of water is common enough that all testing facilities will test for it's presence as part of their standard battery of tests.

E.coli normally resides in the guts of many mammals including humans and cattle. The presence of e.coli in your water indicates that fecal matter has made its way into your water supply. Consuming water that contains e.coli will usually result in cramping and diarrhea. However, there are some strains of e.coli that are much more aggressive. Consuming these dangerous strains of e.coli can result in liver damage and ultimately death.

The first line of defense in avoiding bacterial contamination of your well is to ensure that it was constructed properly, and that it has been maintained as required. The most critical part of well construction and maintenance is to strive to keep all surface water out of the well. Groundwater, except in rare cases, is free from bacteria. Virtually all bacterial contamination of a drilled well occurs when surface water is allowed enter the well. Note that surface water includes water that drains over the ground but also water that travels through the first few feet of soil.

When a well is constructed there are rules that well drillers must follow. These rules vary by jurisdiction but the themes are consistent. Ensuring these steps were followed will go a long way to ensuring you avoid a bacteria problem, or cure the one you've got.

First, figure out where your well is located. It sounds like an elementary step, but it's surprising how many rural homeowners can't tell you where their well is situated.

Second, it's critical that a well is not located close to a pollution source. Keep wells far away from septic tanks and weeping beds, or containers of manure. These are notorious sources of e.coli bacteria.

Third, ensure that the well is sealed. When a well is constructed, there is a space between the well casing and the hole into which this casing fits. This is known as the annular space. To ensure that no surface water is allowed to collect around the casing this space must be filled with watertight material to a certain depth. A visual inspecting will at least confirm that the top of the annular space has been filled and sealed.

Fourth, make sure the well casing extends above the level of the ground. It's important that the well casing is at least several inches higher than the surrounding ground to ensure that no surface water can run into the well.

Fifth, ensure that the top of your well is sealed with a vermin proof well cap. Some bacterial problems arise when animals climb into the well cap, fall into the well and die. The rotting material will cause bacterial levels to skyrocket.

Despite taking these measures, you may still find that a bacterial problem persists. At this point the well owner is faced with the expensive prospect of drilling another well. Fortunately, technology provides us with a very reliable and much less expensive solution: ultraviolet light water disinfection.

Ultraviolet light (UV for short) is able to render bacteria harmless. A UV system for water purification is simply a device that is plumbed on the main water line in the home. It consists of a steel chamber into which is inserted a high-output UV lamp. As bacteria move past the lamp they are zapped and eventually die. A UV system will take care of e.coli, coliform bacteria as well as most other bacteria, viruses and cysts that might be found in your water supply.

So take the time to know where your well is, and inspect it to make sure nothing is visibly wrong. Adding a UV system can solve a recurring problem or act as added peace of mind. Remember, whatever road you take, there is no substitute for frequent water testing to ensure your well water is safe to drink.
About the Author
C. Reid Thornley is a B.Sc. Biology and a former research associate for a world class water purification manufacturer. He has been a presenter for the US Water Quality Association and he now owns and operates aQuatell - Water Purification Made Easy!
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