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rural well water
Some well water in rural parts of the state may test high in nitrates or other harmful materials. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)

Cracking the case on rural well water

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Media Contact: Gail Ellis | Communications Specialist, Copywriter | 620-515-2498 |

For rural residents who rely on their own wells for household use, testing is often the only line of defense in protecting families and animals from unsafe drinking water.

Individual well systems that populate Oklahoma’s rural landscape can potentially run dry, become contaminated from a flood or nearby septic system, or contain harmful levels of nitrates and minerals. Oklahoma State University Extension supports research conducted by faculty and scientists at the Oklahoma Water Resources Center to help rural residents address well water concerns. A survey conducted by the center in 2020 indicated the quality of drinking water was the top water resources issue among state residents, and less than 15% of participants said they test their drinking water.

“If you’re putting a well online, you need to test for bacteria and disinfect the well,” said Jeannie Shurbet at the Oklahoma Rural Water Association. “Rural Oklahoma’s active farming and animal feeding operations may, in some cases, cause private wells to test high in nitrates. Many individual wells are shallower in very sandy or porous soil, allowing things to like nitrates to infiltrate through to the groundwater a lot quicker.”

Water resources at OSU

Every week, hundreds of water tests are processed through OSU’s Soil, Water and Forage Analytical Laboratory. Most of the samples are routed to the facility in Stillwater from county OSU Extension offices across the state and are categorized into three areas: livestock use, irrigation and household/general use.

“All three tests measure nitrate levels and many other elements,” said Hailin Zhang, the lab’s longtime director. “Nitrates in irrigation water are a good thing because a nitrate is a nutrient that crops can use.”

If the water is intended for household use, nitrate levels of more than 10 parts per million are deemed unsafe. However, the standard nitrate level in water for livestock is much higher than that allowed for human consumption.

“Water quality varies so much,” Zhang said. “If there are multiple wells on one piece of land, you will see very drastic differences in water quality.”

Wells are sometimes abandoned if the water is poor quality. The water pumped in western and central Oklahoma is high in salt and salinity. In eastern Oklahoma the water tends to be more desirable for drinking because of the geology of the area and higher rainfall amounts that frequently recharge the groundwater.

Zhang said his lab team most often conducts water testing and analysis for livestock and irrigation purposes, but the lab also has an inexpensive screening test for drinking water at only $15 per sample. If the water is suspect, it can be tested for E. coli and other harmful elements at a certified lab available through a private entity, county health department or the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

To submit a water sample to a county Extension office for testing in Stillwater, Zhang recommends taking certain steps.

“Before retrieving water, the well should be bailed out to let it recharge instead of collecting water that’s been sitting a long time,” he said. “If the water is from a faucet, let it run a few minutes, collect some and let it run a few more minutes before collecting more for the final sample.”

Water screening in 2022

The Oklahoma Water Resources Center at OSU plans to launch a pilot program in spring 2022 to gauge residents’ need for water well testing and education. In partnership with two county Extension offices, the center will offer free well water screening. The project will be facilitated by two students in the OSU environmental science undergraduate program.

“We will look for bacteria and also things like arsenic, nitrate and total dissolved solids to check if it is below or above standard drinking water levels,” said Kevin Wagner, the center’s director. “After the homeowners receive their results, we’ll host a one-hour educational session on how to interpret the test levels. We’ll discuss the effects of these levels and next steps for addressing any water issues.”

Rural water service is a public utility. Residents with rural water are guaranteed an ample supply of clean, safe water by law for their households and other needs. But residents depending on a private well are 100% responsible for the management, quality and testing of their water.

“We hope this program fills that gap for residents who need assistance in determining if their water is safe to drink,” Wagner said.

His goal is to test at least 100 water samples and identify the percentage of those with high bacteria, dissolved solids, nitrate and arsenic levels. The program also presents an opportunity to conduct a quick survey among homeowners to determine their interest in participation.

“If this is something water well owners would want or find value in, we’ll start building a larger statewide program,” Wagner said.

Fact sheets detailing additional information about the topic are available online and through OSU Extension county offices. Learn more about Oklahoma’s rural water systems.

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