The following quotes are some common beliefs about well water quality and, in particular, about bacteria in well water. Maybe you’ve even said them yourself! So let’s take a closer look and see how many of these are actually true.
“My biggest concerns are the taste, the smell, and problems with hard water.”
The things that we can see, smell, or taste in our water are certainly annoying and even off-putting. In fact, they are often the very thing that makes you pick up the phone and call your local water treatment professional. But should they be the biggest concern? Not likely. These are aesthetic issues, and generally not harmful to your health. Your biggest concern should be the things you can’t see, smell, or taste. Those are the contaminants that are likely to cause illness, whether it’s a fairly immediate bout of diarrhea and vomiting from harmful bacteria in the water, or a more chronic illness that could result from PFOS in the water.
“We tested the water 20 years ago when the well was first installed, and it was fine.”
The operative word here is “was”. Testing your water after the well is drilled is important. It establishes a baseline and helps to identify any immediate needs for water treatment. The basic testing often includes pH, hardness, coliform bacteria, and nitrates. Of these, hardness is the only thing not likely to change over time. So you’re done with hardness testing. But the recommendation is to repeatedly test for pH, coliform bacteria, and nitrates because the presence of these or concentration of these contaminants can vary over time. Testing for coliforms, for instance, is recommended at least once a year in most places, though in many cases the recommendation will be to test two or three times a year in different seasons and weather conditions.
“I should probably be testing it every year or two. But obviously there’s a difference between what I should do, and what I actually do”
The truth here is that there’s very often a big difference between what should be done and what is actually done when it comes to water quality testing. Let’s look at bacteria testing, for example. Surveys of private well owners from different parts of North America have confirmed that annual water testing, as recommended, is not practiced. It looks like every third well (or in some cases, only 1 in 5) is tested once a year or more often. While there are many reasons (excuses even) for not being committed to well water testing, it hardly seems worth the risk when approximately 34% of wells tested will show evidence of bacterial contamination.
“I looked up information about the presence of coliforms and wasn’t really worried about the risk.”
This is tricky. Often times you will read statements like “coliforms are present naturally in the environment” or “coliforms, themselves, are unlikely to cause illness”. And yes, these things are true. But the coliforms were not detected in the environment, they were detected in your well water. That means there is a route available for fecal contaminants to get into your well water. That’s why the presence of coliforms and not necessarily the coliforms themselves should be concerning.
“Most of the wells in the area would have the same thing.”
Oh my! Whether it’s widespread or localized contamination, it’s still contamination. That doesn’t mean you should ignore your water test results, or down-play a positive coliform result. It’s your well water, and it’s your responsibility to ensure its safety. So make the choice to seek out a water treatment specialist or well water professional to find the right solution. The key is to take action.