Tests, seminars focus on water quality

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Is that well water safe to drink?

That question prompted some 85 local property owners to bring samples for free testing offered by the Sweet Home Rotary Club and Oregon State University last week in the District 55 boardroom.

Their water was tested for arsenic, nitrates and coliform bacteria. The arsenic testing was done at cost by Analytical Labs in Eugene, while microbiologist Karen Dierksen is working with Sweet Home High School science teacher Billy Snow and his students to assist with the bacteria and nitrate testing.

Participants also got a free lecture from Assistant Professor Gail Andrews of the Oregon Well Water Program on well water and how to avoid the dangers thereof.

Andrews’ presentation covered the basic types of water wells, how geology affects water, and tips on dealing with arsenic, nitrates, and bacterial contamination.

She explained how water percolates through soil and said that deeper wells may contain water that’s taken thousands of years to reach the point where it is pumped from the ground. During its journey through the soil, many contaminants are filtered out, producing “virtually perfect” drinking water. But water may pick up other contaminants, such as minerals.

“Everybody’s well – what’s coming out is their own individual water cocktail.” Andrews said, noting that the quality of well water can be a “history” of what’s gone into it. “The types of minerals (the water has been exposed to) determine the quality of the water.”

For instance, she said, the white deposits that can develop in showers or bathtubs used to be seashells. Orange stains, on the other hand, reveal the presence of iron in water, even if it’s not otherwise visible.

She told participants they could determine if there is “white iron in their water by putting a few drops of chlorine or bleach in a glass of water and shaking it up, then looking closely to see if there is any orange color. White iron is caused when iron dissolves in situations where there is no oxygen present and it is brought out by the oxygenating effects of chlorine.

“Putting Chlorox in a washing machine to get rid of iron is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” she said.

Well water can also contain bacteria that consume iron, similar to pond scum or the slime on wooden decks caused by microorganisms. She said that type of bacteria can be detected by checking a toilet tank to see if there is orange-colored scum present.

Of greater concern are nitrates, caused by fertilizers and the breakdown of organic materials such as fecal matter, coliform bacteria, and arsenic.

Nitrates can cause sickness, particularly in infants. The fact that nitrates exist in water is an indicator of water’s ability to move through soil. Andrews said nitrates can leak into drinking water from septic systems, fertilizers and organic materials that have broken down in the soil. She said that if a property owner has reason to suspect the presence of nitrates, a test might be in order. But she suggested waiting for a free test if there is no reason to be concerned.

Coliform bacteria, which comes from fecal matter, includes a broad range of bacteria, most of them harmless. However, one type is E Coli, which can be deadly. Andrews said that the presence of coliform indicates that surface water is seeping into groundwater, so testing every few years is advisable. She also warned that new homeowners should pay for a test because real estate agents have been known to chlorine shock a well, then have it tested.

The presence of coliform bacteria indicates that there is a leak or other problem with a water system.

“If a test is positive, don’t just dump chlorine down the well and go about your business,” she said. “Find the problem and correct it.”

She also said that well owners should chlorine shock a well after doing plumbing repair, changing a pump or otherwise working on a system “because it won’t be a sterile system.”

Arsenic, a fatal poison which, in lesser amounts, can cause a variety of cancers, is present in some areas around Sweet Home.

Andrews said the safety standard for arsenic in public water systems was recently lowered from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion, but there is no specific requirement private wells. She said the main issue is how much people drink from their own well.

“If you’re living on a farmstead and homeschooling your children, then the home standard should be the same as the public standard,” Andrews said. Otherwise, she said, “pass or no-pass doesn’t apply to you.

She said that the presence of arsenic can vary from time to time in a well and that it is expensive to remove.

Andrews said a scientist from Bangladesh is making progress toward a cheaper system, but filtering systems for arsenic is “outrageously expensive,” costing thousands of dollars.

“Your most practical alternative source is bottled water,” she said.

She said people with questions about well water should call the Oregon Well Water Program at (541) 737-6294 or visit http://wellwater.oregonstate.edu.