Despite dangers, few regulations for private well users

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Water coming from a well in Hays County_331497

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Nobody is going to keep Joan Lawson’s water clean for her, not that she’s complaining about it.

As a private well owner, there’s no state regulation on Lawson’s water or any quality standard for what comes out of her well and into her grandchildren’s drinking glasses in rural Hays County.

“You never know what could be in there,” Lawson said, while getting her water tested at a Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) event. “It’s the only thing you can use where I live… We want to make sure that our well is giving us clean water.”

In Texas, educating well owners and assisting with water testing is, for the most part, left to a patchwork of groundwater conservation districts. Some of those districts, like the BSEACD, are well funded.

But many districts are cash-strapped, leaving less to offer well owners in the way of education and testing assistance.

For the roughly 1 million private well users in Texas, there’s a substantial list of natural and manmade chemicals that can seep into their water supply.

Cary Betz, with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and chairman of the Texas Groundwater Protection Committee, said outreach for

well owners has improved in recent years.

However “there’s more that can be done,” Betz said. “We still need to reach out to many more people, but we could always use additional funding for our programs.”

Without outreach, many of those well owners may not know they are in charge of testing and cleaning their own water supplies.

“It’s scary,” said Blayne Stansberry, president of the BSEACD, referring to the potential for water contamination. “If you’re in areas of growth, or areas of growth upstream of your well, it can be pretty scary.”

KXAN found several experts and officials who say state and local agencies have struggled with education efforts to help private well owners understand potentially deadly toxins.

In a state as vast and varied as Texas, with more than two dozen major and minor aquifers, there is a wide range of groundwater contaminants. Each aquifer has its own unique issues, depending on the industry above it and the rock it flows through.

Though the state doesn’t check the water in private wells, it does monitor certain wells in an effort to broadly understand the natural composition of each aquifer’s water.

The Texas Water Development Board’s 2011 report, “Naturally Occurring Groundwater Contamination in Texas,” details each Texas aquifer and the different naturally occurring contaminants.

Two of Central Texas’ main aquifers, the Trinity and Edwards, generally have high quality water. The most common naturally occurring chemicals with levels that could be unsafe for humans in the Trinity are flouride and combined radium. The Edwards Aquifer is characterized as having “very high quality groundwater” with no “high risk” areas, though some select spots could high levels fluoride or gross alpha, which is a measure of radioactivity, the Water Board’s report states.

Though Central Texas’ aquifers appear to be safer than many others in the state, in terms of natural contaminants, each well is different.

Diane Boellstorff, an associate professor and water resource specialist with Texas A&M University, says any given well can have its own problems. If a well casing is cracked, for example, that could lead to the introduction of E. Coli, which originates in mammal feces.

“It really varies according to what are you getting this water out of and what is it bringing up with it, as it’s been in that aquifer for thousands of years in many cases,” Boellstorff said. “We ask people when we do programs: ‘When was the last time you had your water tested?’ The most frequent answer is ‘never.’”

Without testing, well owners can’t know what they’re drinking, said John Dupnik, general manager of the BSEACD.

Dupnik’s district holds free well water testing events. KXAN spoke to him at an April function in southern Travis County; about 60 people pre-registered.

“Some of the smaller single-country districts, just by the way they’re set up whether by a taxing mechanism or fee mechanism, don’t generate a lot of revenue,” Dupnik said. “The effectiveness of your operation is contingent on how well you’re funded.”

Without funding, outreach can be minimal. And it isn’t just natural chemicals that can harm well-water drinkers. Industry can also introduce contamination to groundwater, and in some cases that contamination can be more dangerous.

“Groundwater is connected fairly directly to the surface,” Dupnik said. “Most of the natural stuff is not near as much of a concern as what can be introduced through surface activities into the aquifer.”

Myriad circumstances can impact well water quality. In the Edwards Aquifer, the porous limestone makes it quick and easy for surface contaminants to enter the aquifer.

Careless and accidental spills can seep chemicals through the ground into aquifers.

In particular, petrochemical production, transportation and storage have impacted Texas groundwater. For years, one of the state’s largest contamination hazards has been underground storage tanks, such as those used to store gasoline at service stations, Betz said. The Groundwater Protection Committee provides the Legislature with reports on groundwater contamination and provides strategies to protect groundwater, Betz said.

TCEQ sends out notices to well owners nearby that could be impacted, if contamination is detected in groundwater that can impact a private well.

Through the Texas Public Information Act, KXAN obtained hundreds of those notices sent around the state from 2014-2016: mercury leaked in Wigginsville, chromium contamination in Andrews County, E. Coli detected in Sonora groundwater.

KXAN has mapped the locations where TCEQ measured contaminants in the groundwater since 2014. Due to possible contamination, the agency sent notices to nearby private well owners.

Several locations with contamination near Yorktown, Sonora and Kress could not be mapped due to vague addresses.

In the Austin area, TCEQ sent notices in 2014 to well users near a Cedar Park 7-Eleven that possibly leaked chemicals into the ground. A monitoring well there found high levels of Napthalene, a petroleum product used in mothballs.

KXAN also obtained reports sent to well owners within a quarter-mile of a Manchaca Sac-N-Pac service station in southern Travis County in 2014. A spokesperson for Sunoco said the leak was detected under a previous owner. Sunoco installed new piping and leak detection equipment, according to the spokesperson.

Marbridge Foundation received one of those notices. The foundation provides housing, education and work opportunities for mentally challenged adults.

Michael O’Shieles is head of facilities at Marbridge. When he got the notice, the possibility of contamination was concerning, but he said Marbridge’s water was not affected. The foundation’s drinking water stayed within state standards.

Marbridge’s water supply is regulated by the TCEQ and undergoes regular testing because it serves a population of more than 200 people.

That oversight keeps O’Shieles keenly aware of the water quality.

“Having clean water for the community is the most important thing we have here,” O’Shieles said.

But just across the street, where single-family neighbors use wells, the state doesn’t regulate. And O’Shieles said it’s important that those people get tested, as well.

“If you own a private well, you really ought to do some testing,” he said. “There could be things in there if you’ve never tested that you’ve been drinking for a very long time.”

The labs listed below can test for water contamination. A complete listing of Texas labs and each lab’s accreditation can be seen here.

  • Aqua Tech Labs, 7500 Hwy. 71 W, Ste. 2015, Austin, TX 78735; 512-301-9559
  • Edwards Aquifer Research and Data Center, Texas State University; 512-245-2329
  • LCRA Environmental Laboratory Services, 3505 Montopolis Drive, EL101, Austin, TX 78744; 512-356-6022

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