Michigan private well water quality unregulated after installation

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Michigan doesn’t require private well owners to regularly test their water quality. Image: Eric Norris

By Laura Bohannon

Capital News Service

Even though Michigan has the most private wells in the nation, no state regulations control how often that water should be tested.

A quarter of Michigan’s residents rely on well water, according to Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Committee’s most recent report. But the state has set no standard for monitoring the quality of water from private wells, Department of Environmental Quality  source water unit supervisor Matt Gamble said.

“Private wells get tested when they’re installed and they may never be sampled again,” Gamble said. “There is no requirement — at least no statewide requirement — for a homeowner to have their well sampled on any schedule.”

Gamble said the DEQ frequently learns of contaminated well water. When it hears of new cases, the department responds through a program that funds projects to replace contaminated wells and connect residents to municipal water.

And some local communities require well inspections when a house changes hands, similar to a lead paint inspection, Gamble said.

“It’s really a local health department’s venue to decide whether or not they want additional regulations on the wells,” he said.

Tom Reichard, the environmental health director for Michigan’s District 10 Health Department in Hart, said he wasn’t aware of any counties that regulate how often private well water should be tested.

The District 10 Health Department serves Crawford, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee, Mason, Mecosta, Missaukee, Newaygo, Oceana and Wexford counties, according to its website.

Reichard said he doesn’t think homeowners would support a regulation that forces them to test their wells. He also said local health departments can’t afford to go around to every home and check on the water.

Reichard said the District 10 Health Department recommends sampling water frequently. “That’s the only way you know if it’s really safe,” he said.

According to the DEQ, Michigan has nearly 1.12 million households with private wells, with about 15,000 domestic wells drilled each year. Michigan also has a significant number of public wells that serve as municipal water sources, and those wells are subject to state testing regulations.

Gamble said a big reason for so many wells is because a lot of areas don’t have access to a large body of surface water to tap into. Access to abundant high-quality groundwater is another reason wells are prevalent, according to Richard Benzie, assistant director of the DEQ’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division.

While plenty of wells are plugged each year, a greater number of new wells are typically drilled annually, Gamble said. About half of the newly drilled wells are accompanied by the abandonment of an old well, he said.

“In 2015, we had about 5,800 wells plugged, whereas we had something like 12,000 or 13,000 drilled,” Gamble said.

When talking about water quality in wells, it’s important to distinguish private wells from public ones, Gamble said. He said the DEQ is responsible for ensuring the water in public wells is safe, but private wells are a different story.

“The interaction with the residential wells is mostly done through the local health department,” Gamble said. “They are aware of the situations that are developing and they’re watching it a lot closer than one would think. We have lots of interactions every day with the local health departments around the state.”

Anne Woiwode, conservation director of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, said the process for health departments to ensure private water wells are safe is inconsistent.

Typically, it’s up to homeowners to decide whether to inspect their well, said Tim Seese, owner of Seese Well Drilling in Clarksville. Discovering physical damage to a well is a good indicator of contamination.

“Assuming you don’t run over it with your car and crack it,” a properly installed well shouldn’t allow insects in, Seese said. A new 100-foot well water system in the Clarksville area typically costs between $5,500 and $6,500, he said.

In terms of testing for contaminants, Seese said most homeowners don’t know how to take a water sample, which requires more than filling a bottle with well water.

For public wells, Gamble said DEQ follows a three-step process to ensure water quality.

The first step is making sure the wells are far enough from known sources of contamination. The minimum distance for public water supply wells is greater than for private wells, he said.

The next line of defense is a properly constructed well. Authorized drillers must go through a written and hands-on test as well as proving they have worked under a licensed driller, Gamble said.

Finally, new wells must be sampled and tested for contamination. “They can’t use the well until they get a sample that is free of those bacterial indicators,” Gamble said.

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