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Private well owner network effort began with free water screenings in rural Oklahoma

OSU student, Max Bode, doing a nitrate test in Stillwater.
Kateleigh Mills / KOSU
OSU student Max Bode performs a nitrate test in Stillwater, Okla.

When you get your water from a city water supply, or from a rural water district, that water is regulated, tested, the government is supposed to make sure it’s safe before it gets to your tap. But many Oklahomans rely on private wells, of which there are some 18,000 across the state.

It’s up to the owners of those private wells to monitor and treat the water they’re pumping. Some do. Some don’t. It’s not required.

A group of Oklahoma State University students and researchers from the Oklahoma Water Resources Center led an effort in March to learn more about the characteristics of private water wells across Oklahoma. Their research efforts took them to three rural counties: Alfalfa, Pontotoc and Tillman.

Abu Mansaray is a research specialist for the Oklahoma Water Resources Center who helped the group of OSU students, Max Bode, Rayna Ellison and Rocky Guy, with their on-site research and testing.

Mansaray said these three counties are just the beginning.

“So we're trying to establish a network of well owners in Oklahoma where we can help do free well testing for private well owners and then sit with them and explain the outcome of the test to see whether the water is good for drinking or not,” Mansaray said.

Mansaray and the students got help from the OSU extension offices in each county to get the word out about the free water screening. After the tests were conducted, the researchers suggested methods on how to improve water quality for individuals.

Kevin Wagner, the director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Center, said in late 2021 when leaders in the OSU environmental science program were planning for senior projects, establishing a well owners’ network was the favorite in the handful of ideas. Wagner was also a part of a similar project in Texas.

The public water supply is regulated and has to meet certain criteria, and there’s funding for that. For private wells, the story is different.

“There's nobody monitoring that water and there's nobody to provide funding to address that other than the homeowners,” Wagner said. “So it all falls back on them.”

He said the focus of the project was to look at household drinking water. Wagner said the screenings were kept private, because testing the wells can be a sensitive issue for owners.

“If there's a high level of some contaminant in your water, there may be some fear that somebody is going to come after you, and it's going to be very costly for you,” Wagner said. “That's just not the case because there's no rules or regulations about that. But secondly, we don't share the specific results with anybody else but the homeowner.”

Alfalfa County was the pilot's first location

Bode, Ellison and Guy — the three OSU students — made their first stop at the OSU Extension Office in Cherokee, in northwestern Oklahoma's Alfalfa County, where the turnout was much higher than expected. Bode said they anticipated to test about 25 samples, but received 100 samples from county residents.

“It's been about 24 hours of sampling straight now,” Bode said.

The screening tested for various characteristics like bacteria, nitrate and arsenic. While the researchers were in the counties, they were able to hold town-hall style presentations, which were put together for the well owners later that night. In Alfalfa County, they tested for sulfate, since the county is close to the Great Salt Plains Refuge.

Kateleigh Mills / KOSU
Terry Ryel

Terry Ryel, a well-owner in Alfalfa County, participated in the project. He uses his private well mostly for his livestock and to heat and cool his house via a geothermal unit, but this is not water they drink regularly.

“I knew it had sulfate and salt content in it, but I was just curious how high… it was high,” Ryel said. “I've got grandkids at my house, and in summertime, you play in the water, and they drink it. So, I want to make sure it's safe, and it was.”

Ryel said he wasn’t surprised about the results of his screening and will not implement any new changes to how he already cares for the well he owns, which his grandfather put in nearly 60 years ago.

“You know, to me, the bacteria and things like that are the important things that can make you sick,” Ryel said. “The salt, it's just what it is. So, my grandparents, I would venture to say, probably never tested theirs.”

Kelly Fanning
Kateleigh Mills / KOSU
Kelly Fanning

Kelly Fanning lives on her family’s homestead and also owns a private well in the county. The water from her well is used for drinking, watering plants and the dogs she takes care of.

She wanted to get her well tested to know her water quality. The fact that it was free was a bonus.

“Hey, what can it hurt? Not realizing that my results are going to be high in salt, sulfate and electrical conductivity,” Fanning said. “Yes, it totally surprised me now. I'm taking care of my son's dog, and he really doesn't like the water, and it tastes a little funny. I mean, not bad. It tastes metallic.”

Her well is roughly 50 years old. She replaced the tank and lines about five years ago. But testing private wells regularly can be time-consuming for residents in the county. People must send their sample to be tested within a short window of time at the Department of Environmental Quality or testing centers.

“I mean, we're 30 minutes from Walmart,” Fanning said. “So, you just kind of get used to that. You don't have the convenience of the big city, but you have the country life. So, it's kind of pick and choose your battles.”

The student researchers and their ties to water quality

Bode said this project was important to him because he wanted to help people in rural areas better understand how to care for and test their wells.

“Rural water quality has always been an issue,” Bode said. “The family I have in Arkansas has been heavily decimated by changes in the population size of their town, to where they can't use their water anymore.”

Like Bode, Ellison has family ties to rural water. Her family runs about 200 head of cattle on a 400-acre ranch in the southeastern part of the state.

She said most of the people she knows in her county work two jobs, like her dad, who has a private well. For Ellison said this is an opportunity to help her community, where people often leave the county, and don’t return. Through this project, she can do the opposite.

For Guy, water quality issues stretch beyond Oklahoma and the United States. Guy is from Ethiopia, and said equipment to test water in his home country is scarce.

“I'm hoping to go back and maybe help them there, provide them with the information I'm learning here and maybe even test a few water samples there,” Guy said. “As well as provide them with the result, and what they can do to have better water qualities.”

What did the screening find?

Alfalfa County was the only place where the students found bacteria present in the screening — including some cases of E. coli present.

“So by the end of the presentation, we will go through the results and let them know this is what we found out in your well, [and show you] things you need to do,” Mansaray said. “Maybe you need to retest, or you need to treat the water, and then we give them some treatment options.”

Any presence of bacteria means the well was contaminated, and the water is unsafe to drink. If someone does drink water with bacteria, side effects can include severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

Max Bode tests a water sample in Alfalfa County. This sample is positive for E. coli.
Kateleigh Mills / KOSU
Max Bode tests a water sample in Alfalfa County. This sample is positive for E. coli.

The average sulfate found in Alfalfa County was around 230 mg/L, which was still in a good range even though the recommended level is 250 mg/L. The county also saw an average for Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) that was within the acceptable range for livestock, but not recommended for low salt tolerant plants like cucumbers and radishes.

In Pontotoc County in southeastern Oklahoma, where the researchers tested 50 samples, there was no presence of bacteria or high levels of nitrate. The county's Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) also was in a good range for plants and animals.

In Tillman County in southwestern Oklahoma, the pilot program was only able to test four samples. Two of the samples had double the recommended level for nitrate, and the remaining two had normal levels — which is why the average nitrate level for the county was above the recommendation. When nitrate is high, it is converted into nitrites, which leads to body toxicity.

Wagner said he hopes this project can eventually help determine the private well outlook for Oklahoma.

“The things that we're wanting to do with this program is to get a better handle on the number of private water wells that are out there than the number that are being used for drinking water supplies.” Wagner said.

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Kateleigh Mills was the Special Projects reporter for KOSU from 2019 to 2024.
Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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