Written by Emily Halstead, a junior in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and a communications intern for Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Since 1989, the Virginia Household Water Quality Program has been educating homeowners about their responsibility for and maintenance of private water systems. A collaborative effort among Virginia Cooperative Extension’s family and consumer science agents, agricultural and natural resource agents, and 4-H agents, the program is offered annually in more than 50 counties throughout the state.
“We find that a lot of people don’t really know what type of [private water system] they have or how to take care of it,” said Senior Extension Associate Erin Ling, coordinator of the program.
According to Ling, one-fifth of Virginia homeowners rely on wells, springs, or other private water systems for their household water supply.
“Private water isn’t regulated, so the homeowner is responsible for understanding the water quality, the routine testing, and treatment to address with any contaminants that are a problem, as well as routine care and maintenance of the water systems,” Ling said.
Homeowners participating in this program are trained to collect testing samples, which are transported to Virginia Tech’s campus for analysis. The samples are analyzed for 14 parameters, including bacteria, nitrate, and lead.
“Our biggest concern is really making the program as available as possible to as many people as possible,” Ling said. “In most counties there are thousands of people that are on wells or springs and so, as many of them as we can reach, the better. We’re just trying to find the balance between how many samples we can handle and how many people we can reach.”
After the samples have been analyzed, the homeowner receives the results during a meeting explaining the results and information about how to maintain their water system properly.
“We’ve gotten really positive feedback from people who have participated,” Ling said. “We did a follow-up survey in 2013 checking with people who had participated in the last two years and we found that about 65 percent of people that we talked with said they had taken at least one action that was recommended. It was good to check back in and we’ll do that again with future participants.”
According to Ling, the data collected has also served as a powerful and useful tool in research. Brian Benham and Leigh-Anne Krometis, both faculty members in Biological Systems Engineering (BSE), and Kelsey Pieper, a doctoral student in BSE, have built on the data generated for a research project focusing on lead levels in private water systems.
“I like this program because of the very real connections for people. It’s not like a natural resource over there or the environment in general, it’s their own drinking water,” Ling said. “I find it’s a really good way to get their attention and get them to start thinking about the natural world.”
For more information about the program and upcoming water clinics, visit the Virginia Cooperative Extension website.