For the many Georgia families who rely on private wells for drinking water, no news is good news. And the good news is that a recent well-water testing program has found few problems.
"Most wells are OK in terms of their drinking-water quality," said Tony Tyson, an engineer with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
"We did find some problems with high nitrate-nitrogen in some," he said. "And a few were high in lead. But most are just nuisance problems, such as staining, off taste or odor caused by minerals like iron, manganese and calcium. All water contains some natural dissolved minerals."
For the most part, nitrate levels were below the normal drinking water standards of 10 parts per million. Those above the standard were normally on a confinement livestock farm or too close to a septic system, said Parshall Bush, an extension pesticide residue chemist. Most were also from older, poorly constructed shallow wells.
"Families with confinement livestock operations need to test their water," Bush said. "If the nitrate level is above 10 ppm, they need to treat it or find another source for drinking water. Nitrates take a while to get into a water source. And it will take a while to get them out."
Bush also traced a problem along the fall line.
"The pH of drinking-water samples along the fall line is quite acidic," he said. "That could lead to potential lead and copper being leached from the pipes. Those folks along the fall line should have their water tested for lead and copper."
The UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences experts recommend regular testing for people with private wells. They should test the water routinely for the minerals, bacteria and nitrates.
The health department usually tests for bacteria. The UGA labs and private labs can test for minerals and other elements.
"We can also test for pesticides and petroleum products," Tyson said. "Those rarely show up, and testing for them can get expensive. So we don't usually recommend those tests unless there's a reason to believe there's a problem.
"Levels of pesticides, volatile organic chemicals or petroleum are the things people tend to be afraid of," he said. "But we very rarely find them in ground water."
In 1989, the Extension Service began to compile a data base to learn the extent of nitrate contamination in private wells in Georgia. Through 1996, they tested around 7,000 wells for 15 mineral elements plus pH, hardness and nitrate-nitrogen.
The current data includes nearly 4,600 samples collected since 1992. The samples were analyzed by the UGA labs in Athens. The testing program serves mainly private well owners to insure safe drinking water.
Call your county agent to learn more about sampling drinking water for testing. There is a small fee to conduct some of the tests.