Millions of Rural Americans Rely on Private Wells. Few Regularly Test Their Water.

by | Oct 24, 2023 | Health

FORT DODGE, Iowa — Allison Roderick has a warning and a pledge for rural residents of her county: The water from their wells could be contaminated, but the government can help make it safe.

Roderick is the environmental health officer for Webster County in north-central Iowa, where a few thousand rural residents live among sprawling corn and soybean fields. Many draw their water from private wells, which are exempt from most federal testing and purity regulations. Roderick spreads the word that they aren’t exempt from danger.

More than 43 million Americans rely on private wells, which are subject to a patchwork of state and local regulations, including standards for new construction. But in most cases, residents are free to use outdated wells without having them tested or inspected. The practice is common despite concern about runoff from farms and industrial sites, plus cancer-causing minerals that can taint groundwater.

“You’re cooking with it. You’re cleaning with it. You’re bathing in it — and, nowadays, there are so many things that can make you sick,” Roderick said.

Federal experts estimate more than a fifth of private wells have concentrations of contaminants above levels considered safe.

Like many states, Iowa offers aid to homeowners who use well water. The state provides about $50,000 a year to each of its 99 counties to cover testing and help finance well repairs or treatment. The money comes from fees paid on agricultural chemical purchases, but about half goes unused every year, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Roderick, who started her job in 2022, aims to spend every penny allotted to her county. Last spring, she snared a …

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