By Cliff Treyens, Director of General Public Outreach, National Ground Water Association
National Groundwater Awareness Week, recently observed on March 5-11, affords an opportunity to deliver a timely message to private household water well owners. April showers not only bring May flowers, they can also cause floods inundating private wells, which serve as the primary source of drinking water to nearly 40 million Americans. As more and more of this population faces well flooding each year, the role of local health officials and emergency personnel before, during, and after a flood is vitally important to public health. The following guidelines can substantially advance jurisdictional planning and implementation capacity to ensure the health and safety of residents using private wells for their drinking water supply.
Before flooding occurs: Reaching and educating private well owners about how to protect their water quality is a real challenge. In research conducted by the National Ground Water Association (NGWA) for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NGWA found that identifying and reaching well owners with information can be very difficult in the first place. You know they’re out there, but knowing precisely where and how to reach them is usually not an easy task.
This research also found that motivating well owners to act to protect their health is not as easy as it sounds. The logic that “of course well owners will want to protect their health by doing whatever it takes to protect their drinking water” often is not true. Barriers to action such as cost and inconvenience frequently are enough to deter well owners from action.
- Action step 1: Ideally, before flooding occurs, identify well owners residing in your jurisdiction and the best way to reach them. Some jurisdictions have done this by comparing residential property tax records with water utility records to identify occupied households likely to be on private wells.
- Action step 2: Direct well owners to do assess how vulnerable their well is to flooding. This is best done with a water well system professional, but if the cost and inconvenience is a deterrent, a well owner can do a visual survey to determine if their wellhead is located on relatively higher ground, making it less susceptible to flooding, or on lower-lying ground, making it more susceptible to flooding.
Well owners can also ask a water well system professional to advise them on the historic flood level for their area—and determine whether the well cap is above or below that level.
- Action step 3: Encourage well owners who have identified their well as potentially susceptible to flooding, to ask a water well system professional to extend the height of the well casing and cap—for example, to above the historic flood level for the area.
During a flood: Conducting outreach targeting private well owners is even more challenging during a flood emergency. Timing becomes especially essential because the actions well owners need to take are no longer just a safety precaution, but rather necessary steps to prevent impending danger.
- Action step 1: Ensure educational outreach to well owners is a part of the jurisdictional emergency response plan. Messaging to well owner should be centered on what not to do or things to avoid. More specifically, instructions should include:
- Stay away from the well pump while it is flooded to avoid electrical shock.
- Do not drink the water from the well or use it for washing to avoid becoming sick
On the other hand, well owners should use bottled water for drinking and cooking. While boiling water can kill bacteria, it may not be effective against other contaminants that infiltrate an inundated well, such as chemical contamination.
After a flood: When floodwaters recede, private well owners need instruction on how their wells can be restored to safe operating condition while providing water that tests safe to drink.
- Action Step 1: Ensure well owners are aware of the dangers related to serving their own wells after a flood has occurred. Water wells are specialized systems that require knowledge and expertise to repair and disinfect, both of which should be done by a water well system professional.
- Action step 2: Direct the well owner to use a water well system professional, who can:
- Clean and turn on the pump
- Flush the well
- Disinfect the well
- Perform any other necessary maintenance.
Widespread flooding often creates longer wait times for wells to be serviced, particularly for areas with a limited number of water well system professions. This makes well owners in remote areas particularly vulnerable, due to a higher likelihood of no readily available access to water well system professionals or provisions such as bottled water. As a result, jurisdictions should prioritize outreach and identify special response needs for affected populations in rural or other isolated locations.
For more information about safeguarding water quality for private wells, visit NGWA’s website for well owners. Additional resources are also available on the National Groundwater Awareness Week webpage and the NGWA website.