Monday, January 30, 2023

Penn State Extension: Climate Risk And Private Water Wells

As we experience changing climate conditions and weather patterns across Pennsylvania, private well owners need to formulate a plan for ensuring that their water supply remains safe, healthy, and resilient.

Temperature and precipitation have become less predictable and more extreme worldwide over the past several decades. Higher temperatures, longer periods of drought, and heavier rain events with higher flood volumes can create harmful conditions for drinking water. 

To plan for these conditions, municipal water suppliers are preparing strategies for infrastructure adaptation and resilience to help minimize risks to public water supplies from emergencies and weather-related disasters. 

But in Pennsylvania, there are no statewide regulations for private water wells, which serve millions of state residents. Private well owners are responsible for any testing, inspection, maintenance, and planning for their own water supply. 

As we experience changing climate conditions and weather patterns across Pennsylvania, private well owners need to formulate a plan for ensuring that their water supply remains safe, healthy, and resilient.  

In just over a century, our state has experienced long-term warming of more than 1°C (1.8°F). This may seem small, but it has large effects on weather events and the storage and movement of water. 

For example, it can mean that we receive more precipitation in the form of rain rather than more slowly released moisture from snow. 

Additionally, higher temperatures increase rates of evapotranspiration, or the movement of water from the ground through plants and into the atmosphere, reducing the amount of available groundwater. 

This can cause some wells to have a lower-than-normal yield during some parts of the year, such as during the summer months. 

When combined with longer dry periods, such as the drought watch conditions in the eastern half of the state in the summer of 2022, wells can start going dry, either intermittently or long-term.  

Although climate risk may lead to more unpredictable dry weather periods, Pennsylvania’s future weather is likely to be much wetter. 

Rain events have already increased in frequency and volume in Pennsylvania, with a 10 percent increase in precipitation, on average, and they are expected to continue to increase through 2050. 

Flood risk, including severe flooding, is increasing across all regions of Pennsylvania. 

Larger rain events, with higher volumes of water during each storm, can result in localized or widespread flooding that can contaminate wells with pollutants such as sediment, pathogens, and nutrients. 

This is more likely to happen if wells are poorly constructed and maintained, contain cracks in the well liner or casing, lack sanitary well caps, or were installed without a grout seal. 

In several states within the past 5 years, including Illinois, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Texas, testing showed that flood water leaking into private wells after large rain events or hurricanes caused higher than normal levels of E. coli in drinking water. 

E. coli and other pathogens can cause serious waterborne illnesses, while nitrate and other pollutants can also have negative health effects. 

Fortunately, private well owners can protect their drinking water, by following current recommendations for proper well construction and maintenance.  The most important action is to assess the current conditions of the well and to plan ahead. 

Penn State Extension recommends that well owners with systems over 10 years old consider having their well inspected by a professional water well specialist. The nonprofit Groundwater Association keeps a list of certified contractors

These experts can inspect your well for problems such as cracked casing, shallow groundwater intrusion, sediment buildup, and also evaluate the condition of your pumping equipment. 

Addressing any concerns or deficiencies in the well’s construction or maintenance now can improve safety and strengthen resiliency before a problem arises. 

Some critical steps that well owners can take without a professional’s help include making sure the well has a sanitary well cap, that the above-ground casing is surrounded by soil that slopes away from the pipe to protect from runoff, and that there are no hazardous materials like fuel, oil, pesticides, or manure stored or used within a minimum of 100 feet of the well.  

Additionally, annual water quality testing can help indicate if there are hidden contamination problems. 

In the aftermath of a flood event, it is important to test for routine contaminants, such as E. coli and nitrate, regardless of whether there is any noticeable change in color, flavor, or odor of the drinking water. 

Many pathogens, metals, and other pollutants cannot be detected without testing. 

It is also essential to inspect the well and pump, repair any damaged well components, disinfect the well, and re-test the water to make sure It is safe. 

Well owners concerned about inadequate water supply/low yield should explore water conservation measures before they consider drilling a new well. 

These can include upgrading to more efficient appliances and plumbing fixtures, changing the timing of water use activities to better distribute peak water demands, and reducing or eliminating some activities that exceed available water supply, such as irrigating water-intensive crops. 

They may also need to consider building in water storage capacity in the private well system or obtaining water from a different source, like a rain cistern, if they frequently encounter insufficient water supply. 

If you are among the one million Pennsylvania households that rely upon a private well, it is crucial to take steps now to protect yourself and your household from the risks posed to your drinking water from changing climate. 

For additional information, consult factsheets such as Penn State Extension’s Proper Water Well Construction, Low Yielding Wells, Shock Chlorination of Wells (ideally in consultation with a professional), and the Department of Environmental Protection’s Private Wells Flooding Resources

Resource Link:

-- Penn State Extension: Master Well Owner Network

Related Article - Wells:

-- Protecting Clean Water Together: Where Does Your Water Come From? -- By Carol Hillestad for Brodhead Watershed Association, Monroe County  [PaEN]

Upcoming Extension Events:

-- February 8: Webinar: Maintaining Streamside Plantings - Ensuring Successful Buffers. 1:00 to 3:30 p.m.

-- February 25: Webinar: Fall In Love With Your Garden Again With Nationally Recognized Gardening Experts, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.  

-- February 27: Webinar: Considerations Of Grass Riparian Buffer Use On Farms. Noon to 1:00 p.m.

-- Penn State Extension To Offer 6-Part Webinar Series In March On Homesteading - Living On A Few Acres

-- Penn State Extension: Forest Landowners Conference Slated For State College March 24-25

Related Articles:

-- Master Watershed Steward Program Statewide Accomplishments In 2022  [PaEN]

-- Penn State: Spotted Lanternfly Experts Share What Research Has Uncovered About The Pest

-- Penn State: Deer Browsing Just One Of Many Factors Shaping North American Forests 

[Posted: January 30, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

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