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Private Well Testing Program Is Underutilized, Researchers Find

Courtesy of CDC
A state-funded program meant to test private drinking water wells in Iowa is being underutilized, researchers have found.

An analysis by University of Iowa researchers has found a state-funded program for testing private wells suffers from “severe underutilization." The Grants To Counties program allocates funds each year for counties to test residents’ wells for certain kinds of contaminants. But in recent years counties have left unspent as much as 55 percent of the total funding.

The state recommends Iowans test their private wells every year to monitor for contaminants. The Grants to Counties or GtC program does just that, providing funding for residents to have their wells screened for nitrate, bacteria and arsenic, which have been linked to increased risks of certain cancers and other health issues.

Funding is also available to plug abandoned wells or do some repair work on damaged wells.

Between fiscal years 2013 to 2018, each county got on average between $23,469 and 36,082 annually, regardless of population or demonstrated need. Half-way through the year, unspent funds can be re-allocated to counties that will spend them.

In a joint analysis by staffers from the UI’s Center For Health Effects Of Environmental Contamination and the Public Policy Center, researchers found the Grants to Counties program is important, and is even somewhat rare in the region in providing dedicated annual funding for private well users.

It’s estimated that 10 percent of Iowans rely on a private well for their drinking water.

“This is an incredibly important program that really sets Iowa apart from many other states because it provides a dedicated funding stream to assist private well users from year to year.  For example, in many other states, well users have to pay out of pocket to get their water tested,” report co-author Dave Cwiertny said in a written statement.

But it’s not being used enough, the researchers found.

"People don't think that they need to have their water tested. They drink it their whole life, it looks fine, it smells fine, it tastes fine, it must be fine." - Carmily Stone, Iowa Department of Public Health

While the Iowa Department of Public Health and Department of Natural Resources provide funding and technical assistance, the program is handled by county public health departments.

Iowa’s 99 counties vary based on population, number of private wells, access to rural water and alternative water sources, geology, and contaminant risk. The rate at which counties are spending their GtC funding varies as well.

Researchers found counties with more private wells and less access to rural water are more likely to spend their funds, which they found encouraging.

“So this is good, right? The people who need it the most are using it the most,” said report co-author Silvia Secchi. “But there is also money left on the table.”

From fiscal years 2013 – 2018, between 29 – 55 percent of the total awarded funds were not spent by the counties.

"These people are really the most vulnerable population when it comes to drinking water in the state because there is nobody but themselves who is responsible for the testing." - Silvia Secchi, University of Iowa

Counties with the highest rate of spending like Delaware, Jefferson and Clayton used all of their available funds and more, spending money that was re-allocated from other counties that left it unspent.

The counties with the lowest average rate of expenditures include Montgomery, Wapello, Dubuque, Fremont and Adams, each of which left more than 75 percent of their funding on the table. Dubuque County had one of the lowest rates of spending, even though the county has no access to rural water and therefore few alternatives for rural residents.

Report co-author Silvia Secchi says the study findings suggests the state’s program is falling far behind its own recommendation that private wells be tested every year.

“We would really like for the program, for all that money to be spent because we know that we’re not testing as much as we should. Right? The rule of thumb is we should test once a year every well and we’re not doing that,” Secchi said.

Carmily Stone is the Bureau Chief at IDPH's Bureau of Enivronmental Health Services and works on the GtC program. She says there are likely a number of reasons counties are leaving money on the table.

“We also have a lot of very small health departments, maybe one public health nurse, one environmental health specialist.  They may not have the resources or the time to work on this program maybe how they would want to,” Stone said. “They just don’t have the time to do it.”

Stone also says there is a general lack of awareness among the Iowa communities that the responsibility of ensuring private wells are drinkable falls on residents themselves. Other Iowans simply believe their well is fine.

“That is some feedback that we have gotten from the environmental health specialists at the local county levels saying, people don’t think that they need to have their water tested. They drink it their whole life, it looks fine, it smells fine, it tastes fine, it must be fine,” Stone said. “So I think that could be part of the issue.”

Not testing the state’s private wells regularly is concerning, Secchi says, because they’re largely unregulated, unlike larger water systems, which must meet federal water quality metrics.

While a public water system serving a community must issue boil water or do not drink notices if contaminants reach certain levels, no government agency has to do that same testing for private wells.

“These people are really the most vulnerable population when it comes to drinking water in the state because there is nobody but themselves who is responsible for the testing” Secchi said.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.