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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Saturated Soils Could Pose Risk to Well Water

April 28, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Heavy rains mean more than an increased risk of flooding. They also can pose a threat to drinking water, said Ohio State University Extension's water quality specialist.

Many residents in rural areas get their drinking water from wells rather than municipal systems, and have septic systems rather than sewers for household wastewater.

"Normally, soil does a fantastic job of removing pathogens and other pollutants from wastewater," said Karen Mancl, who also is a scientist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

"But when it's saturated, soil loses its ability to remove pollutants. If your well or your neighbor's well is near your septic system, drinking water could be unsafe."

Properly constructed and grouted wells protect drinking water against this type of problem, Mancl said. But it's estimated that 40 percent of the nation's well water is contaminated. Code specifies that septic systems need to be at least 50 feet from wells, but research indicates that pathogens can move hundreds of feet through saturated soil, she said.

"With so much rain, this is when your well is most at risk," Mancl said. "It's the ideal time to get your well water tested."

OSU Extension offers detailed information to help Ohioans know how to test and protect their well water. It is available on Mancl's Soil Environment Technology Learning Lab website, and on Extension's website, It includes:

  • An OSU Extension fact sheet, "Where to Have Your Water Tested" (AEX-315), which lists labs throughout the state where homeowners can have their well water tested. Mancl recommends that well water regularly be tested for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, pH and total dissolved solids.
  • "Water Testing" (AEX-314-93), which offers details about different water tests for different situations.
  • "Emergency Disinfection of Water Supplies" (AEX-317), which includes detailed information on what homeowners should do immediately, such as vigorously boiling water for one minute or using a small amount of chlorine bleach, if they find their drinking water is contaminated. Long-term solutions are available in the OSU Extension bulletin "Bacteria in Drinking Water" (Bulletin 795), which also is available for sale in printed form through OSU Extension offices or on Extension's eStore,

"Homeowners who use wells for drinking water need to realize that routine water tests are not a waste of money," Mancl said. "Even if there's no problem, water tests will give you peace of mind. And, you'll have records about the safety of your water supply, which you'll want to have on hand if you ever want to sell your house."

OSU Extension and OARDC are the outreach and research arms, respectively, of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.


Martha Filipic
Karen Mancl