The State of New Hampshire Considers Residential Supply Well Testing

November 4, 2010

raised_well_1.JPGIn November of 2009, the New Hampshire Legislative Groundwater Commission voted to support legislation in favor of water quality testing and reporting of well yields for private water supply wells at the time of installation, deepening, and at the time of sale.  Approximately 40 percent (%) of New Hampshire residents (approximately 526,000 people) rely on private water supply wells as a source of domestic water.  Water quality from these supplies is largely unregulated.  Proposed legislation arising from this recommendation is aimed at closing this large hole in the New Hampshire Safe Drinking Water Act. 


Recommendations for private supply well sampling arose out of work conducted by the Private Well Working Group, a multi-stakeholder group convened in October of 2007 by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) as a part of the process of revising the Department’s Source Water Protection Strategy.  The Work Group found that if private wells are not properly tested, ground water quality from these wells can represent an unacceptable risk to public health.  An estimated 20% of private supply wells in New Hampshire exceed Arsenic standards and 33% exceed the state recommended action level for radon.  The Work Group also summarized information regarding private well yield and found that approximately 3% of private wells do not supply minimum well yields recommended by the New Hampshire Water Well Board of 600 gallons per 2 hours (5 gallons per minute), and 9% do not supply optimum well yields of 960 gallons per 4 hours (4 gallons per minute).  Private well testing is currently required in Rhode Island and New Jersey.    


In response to these issues, the Working Group recommended water quality testing and reporting of water well yield at the time a well is installed or deepened to increase yield, and when the property served by a private well is sold.  Legislation, as currently drafted, requires the seller of the property to conduct water quality testing within one year prior the transfer of a property and to disclose results to the buyer. Water quality testing is to include what the NHDES terms their “standard analysis” for private wells and includes arsenic, bacteria (total coliform and E. Coli), chloride, copper, fluoride, gross alpha, hardness, iron, lead, manganese, nitrate, nitrite, pH, radon, sodium, and uranium.  Testing for Beryllium is recommended by the NHDES for residents in the Mount Washington Valley were approximately 7% of wells exceed standards.  Testing for volatile organic compounds is not required but is recommended for residents located close to industrial properties or properties where petroleum products are stored underground. Costs compiled by the NHDES in March of 2009 for required parameters range from $165 per sample through the state laboratory to between $174 and $240 by private laboratories.  While these costs are not trivial, they are a fraction of the analytical costs (approximately $1,400) small community water systems pay for initial water quality.


The draft legislation does not recommend treatment of water quality found in exceedance of NHDES standards.  NHDES notification is not currently envisioned, but sellers will be asked to voluntarily share the data with the New Hampshire Geologic Survey.  It is hoped that the Geologic Survey can use these results to identify trends and tailor future testing requirements to only those of concern in specific geographic regions, hopefully reducing costs.  Other issues to be worked out include who should be responsible for collecting samples, where should samples be collected (such as after pressure tanks), and how to help homeowners decipher the sometimes confusing results.  Some standards, such as those for radon, are confusing with proposed federal maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), proposed alternative federal MCLs, and NHDES recommended action levels.  An astounding 94% of ground water samples collected from private bedrock wells in New Hampshire exceeds the proposed federal MCL for Radon of 300 picocuries per liter.


The proposed legislation is currently opposed by associations for New Hampshire home builders and realtors primarily on the grounds that the testing requirements would slow real estate transactions and would not benefit public health because it is unlikely that reduced home prices based on test results above standards would lead to increased well treatment.  Further, realtors in New Hampshire point to the fact that 60% of current home sales in New Hampshire use purchase and sales agreements requiring disclosure of water sampling results. Regardless, the working group cited national studies, such as a June 2009 policy statement from the Journal Pediatrics, that concluded there is little national regulation of private drinking well quality and that illness resulting from children’s ingestion of contaminated water can be severe.  Considering the ever increasing testing requirements for public drinking water systems proposed with goal of safeguarding public health, it may be time to consider a modest testing proposal for private well owners.  


David A. Maclean, P.G., L.S.P., L.E.P.