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Shelby County Environmental Health Director Teri Daringer has found a large number of wells with high total coliform bacteria and nitrate levels in that southwest Iowa county just east of the Omaha-Council Bluffs area.

Private Well Tracking System data show 56 percent of the county’s wells have tested positive for total coliform bacteria and 64 percent for high nitrates. Many of the wells are larger diameter, tiled wells, which are more prone to contamination, Daringer said.


But sometimes people don’t take action even when they test their wells and find unsafe water.

“We show them what’s in their water, but no one is going to force them to do anything,” said Mike Stringham, who tests wells in nearby Adair, Cass, Audubon and Guthrie counties.

Across his four counties, he said, his office tests about 200 wells each year, but that’s not evenly distributed. Adair County, for example, has more people connected to rural water, so they don’t do as many tests as there as they do in Guthrie County, where the aquifers are better and there are fewer opportunities to connect to rural water.

Stringham’s office deals with septic systems and well permitting and testing in the four counties, as well as testing and inspecting swimming pools, tanning beds, tattoo parlors and septic tank haulers in five counties: Adair, Cass, Audubon, Guthrie and Adams.


Russ Tell, a senior environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the state’s Grants to Counties program plays a huge role getting people to test their wells and understand their water quality. The program gives counties money to cover administrative costs to test wells and other well safety services.

“It may not sound like much, but many times a suite of tests on a well that may cost $80 to $100, that’s a limiting factor for many well users,” Tell said. “They may not want to spend that money because the water looks clean, and it looks clear, and it tastes good.”

He said a several well owners test their wells every year but many don’t.

“There’s many wells out there that have not been reached yet, whether they don’t know about the program, whether life’s busy and it’s not on the priority list, whatever the case may be,” he said. “We know we’re not reaching every well owner out there.”

Tell said the program provides 6,000 to 7,000 water tests a year, although some might be from repeated testing on the same well. When a problem like high bacteria is discovered, several tests often are run to narrow down where the contamination is coming from and to verify that steps taken to fix the problem have been effective.

Daringer said people in Shelby County often call to get their wells tested because they have kids or infants and are concerned about their water quality, although she said people sometimes call in based on advice from a doctor.

Many people have switched to rural water supplies because of area wells’ poor water quality, Daringer said, although they sometimes keep the wells for livestock or for watering their yards or gardens. By her count, the county has plugged approximately 2,000 wells in the past two decades.

One of the problems sanitarians face is the many well owners who figure that testing is unnecessary as long as the water looks, smells and tastes fine and the well is producing enough water.

“One of the things that I come across when I talk to citizens on the phone is that, if it’s working, there must not be a problem,” Tell said. “And that kind of philosophy will lead itself to having well problems because periodic maintenance is required and water testing is really one of those drivers that help you define the maintenance on your well.”


This IowaWatch story was republished by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. Read an editorial from The Gazette urging people to test their wells.

Lauren Shotwell
Lauren Shotwell

Reporter Lauren Mills Shotwell spent 10 months doing research and testing rural well water quality in Iowa and learning how to conduct well water tests before deciding to focus on southwest Iowa. Working with five county sanitarians and interviewing several others and specialists she contacted rural residents whose drinking water came from private wells. Using Fund for Investigative Journalism grant money she tested 28 wells in May and June. The State Hygienic Lab at the University of Iowa analyzed the results. IowaWatch then shared the results with the residents willing to have their wells tested for this project.

Shotwell, IowaWatch’s first paid full-time digital analyst/reporter, became news director of Little Village magazine in Iowa City in September 2016.

Crisis in Our Wells:
Iowa’s Private Well Water Often Goes Untested, Presenting Unknown Heath Risks
Potential Contaminants in Your Well Water
Arsenic in Drinking Water Tied To Diseases
Water Quality Regulations In Iowa
Building A Database For Iowa’s Wells
Past Studies Show Contamination Levels in Iowa’s Rural Wells
Lead Present in Some Iowa Wells But At Low Levels

Why You Should Plug An Old Well

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