If you are one of the 230,000 to 290,000 people in Iowa who depend on a private well for your drinking water, and you live in one of the 90% of those households that have not tested the water from your well last year, it’s time to test.
The Conservation Learning Group (CLG) and the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) at Iowa State University collaborated on the Iowa Rural Drinking Water Survey of approximately 8,000 Iowa households. Iowa. The group and center recently released a report and infographic citing concerning statistics about drinking water quality testing and nitrate avoidance by users of private wells.
Main findings included in the report
Although free tests are available, only 10% of households have tested their water quality in the last year.
While 70% of households report using water filters, only 10% report having a filter capable of removing nitrates.
A third of households are at high risk of nitrate exposure due to a lack of testing, filtering or use of bottled water.
“This survey provides a unique dataset that helps us understand how individuals and households perceive water quality, what they do to avoid exposure to contaminants, and whether they test their water with any regularity,” says lead researcher Gabriel Lade. on studying for CARD and Assistant Professor of Economics at Macalester College. “It’s easy for researchers to sample and test groundwater, but it’s hard to get a clear picture of what’s coming out of people’s taps and, more importantly, what they’re drinking.”
Public water versus private water
Jamie Benning, UIS deputy director of extension and outreach for agriculture and natural resources extension and co-author of the report, noted that the regulatory disparity between private water sources and public in Iowa is a matter of concern.
Iowa’s public water systems are well regulated when it comes to water quality testing for contaminants such as bacteria and nitrates, and there are treatment requirements when unacceptable levels are detected. There is no such regulatory framework for private wells. Testing is the responsibility of the owner and is only required at the time of construction, major renovation or closure of a well.
“We hope this report and data will encourage policy makers to think about how we promote and encourage private well water testing through policies that can increase funding to counties that have successfully used their funds. , while maintaining the flexibility to help counties that have been less successful,” Benning says. “Ultimately, we want to educate well water users and encourage testing so they can make informed choices about their water usage.”
Test, Avoid, Protect (TAP)
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recommends testing well water for bacteria and nitrates at least once a year, and testing other pollutants like arsenic at least once during lifetime from a well. Grants to Counties is a program open to Iowa counties to fund free well water testing. Other free local and national resources are available, and most are underutilized. The first stop to learn about testing in your area should be the county environmental health office.
“We understood that under a voluntary testing structure, some owners and users would not regularly test their well water; but when analyzing the survey data, the percentage of households at risk of nitrate consumption was alarming,” Lade says.
In many situations, avoiding a problem is not always the best solution. When it comes to nitrate levels in drinking water, avoidance – in terms of using alternative drinking water sources and filtering – is the first and best response when unhealthy water is detected.
“Before you can avoid, you have to know. And the low testing rates shown by the survey tell us that many well water users are simply unaware of the risks they face and therefore take no evasive action,” Lade says. “About 73% of households surveyed are at risk of exposure to potentially unsafe water due to lack of recent testing, avoidance, and/or mitigation. This equates to a number of Iowans at risk who fall somewhere between the population of Cedar Rapids and that of Des Moines, and 33% are classified at the highest level of risk due to the absence of testing and the absence of avoidance.
We have good water here
The survey also included questions to gauge respondents’ level of understanding of broader water quality issues, including nitrate pollution and programs such as Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Interestingly, of the 40% of households that identified nitrate as a concern, more than half said the problem was not local, but rather a bigger concern in other parts of the state.
“This idea that nitrate is a problem – but only somewhere other than here – tells us that large-scale water quality education is working, but there is still work to be done to help people understand the risks of nitrate contamination in well water, and how these pollutants move through our landscapes and enter water supplies,” says Benning.
Why are nitrate levels high and what are the risks?
“Because it is highly mobile in soil, nitrate is vulnerable to loss from agricultural fields and can move into water sources, particularly in early spring and late fall – when soils are warm but the crop is not actively taking up all available nitrate.. While many efforts are being made to control the loss of agricultural nitrate to waterways, there is a risk of high nitrate in private wells. Benning said.
The health risks associated with drinking nitrate-contaminated water range from well-documented conditions such as blue baby syndrome to a suspected link to various cancers and neurological conditions. Both known and unknown effects could lead to incalculable medical costs in the future.
What should well owners do?
“We strongly encourage households to make annual testing a priority,” says Benning. “Testing can provide peace of mind that well water is safe to drink, or inform next steps if a dangerous level of a contaminant is found.”
The study report includes recommendations on education and outreach materials that can help get the message across to well users. And ISU Extension and Outreach prepares programs designed to raise awareness of nitrate risks and the importance of regular testing through county extension offices.
“This study is the start of what should be a long-term collection and analysis of data that can help inform public policy and user behavior in ways that ultimately reduce the risk of nitrate exposure from drinking water,” concludes Lade. “There’s a lot more to learn, but this report sets a benchmark from which we can strive to improve the health of well water in Iowa.”
The Iowa Rural Drinking Water Survey project was funded by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Project No. IOW05570. The co-researchers and co-authors of the report are Gabriel E. Lade, Jacqueline Comito, Jamie Benning, David Keizer and Catherine Kling.
Ripley is the director of Iowa Learning Farms and a Water Rocks! conservation awareness specialist.
Conservation Learning Group is a collaborative team created to advance education, awareness and research on land uses and production systems to increase the overall sustainability of agricultural and natural systems for generations to come. CLG draws on experts from a variety of disciplines to deliver engaging science outreach to farmers, agricultural advisors, landowners, policy makers, youth and communities. To learn more about Conservation Learning Group, visit conservationlearninggroup.org.