Infrastructure catastrophes in Texas and Michigan have brought attention to the fact that many U.S. communities lack access to clean, safe water. While folks on public water are struggling, rural Marylanders feel secure in our private wells. This security is often a mirage, however. Private wells serving less than 25 people in Maryland currently have no federal or state regulation, and home owners alone are responsible for inspecting their wells. When was the last time yours was checked? Did the landlord share that information when you moved in? Contrary to popular belief, just because water comes from a private well does not mean it is safe.
A 2018 University of Maryland study found that nearly half of the private wells surveyed did not meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards in at least one category, including 25% that had unacceptable bacteria levels. A separate study conducted on the Eastern Shore in 2020 found that 1 in 25 wells had unsafe nitrate levels. The EPA sets guidelines for a reason. Nitrates are associated with pregnancy complications, blue baby syndrome, and some cancers. Bacteria can cause potentially severe gastrointestinal illness. A cancer research group found that cancer patients on the Eastern Shore were significantly more likely to have a private well than be on city water.
There is often no noticeable difference in taste or smell in water that is safe compared to unsafe. My own well water often has a sulfur odor, which does not cause any physical harm. On the other hand, toxic levels of arsenic and nitrates do not have a taste. The Maryland Geological survey advises that if you suspect contamination, the well should be tested. Which leads to the question: How would one suspect contamination?
Many states have already taken steps to address these concerns, and it is time for Maryland to join them. House Bill 1069, currently in committee, is intended to create a well safety program to help cover the cost of well tests and treatment of contaminated wells, generate a public database of test results, and require property owners to disclose results to tenants and buyers.
Life on the Eastern Shore may be slower, but that does not mean it needs to be less safe. We all deserve access to clean fresh water, and I’ll raise a glass of home sourced well water to that.
Charlotte Sanford-Crane Thompson, Elkton