In North Carolina, approximately 35 percent of the residents use private wells – the third-highest percentage in the nation. While reliance on private wells is common in rural regions, large population centers like Wake and Mecklenburg counties also have private well users numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Notably, the state’s 3.5 million well users are not protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
In communities across our state, in fact, hundreds of residents don’t know whether their drinking water wells have been contaminated from leaking coal ash ponds. These concerns have prompted state lawmakers to pass legislation requiring permanent connections to public water systems for residents living near these coal ash impoundments.
Clean and safe drinking water is one of the most critical environmental and public health issues facing our state. A recent report, “Safe Water From Every Tap,” from the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative, offers strategies that industry, educational institutions and governmental leaders can take to ensure safe drinking water for all North Carolina residents.
Recent state and federal surveys have demonstrated that residents reliant on drinking water from private wells are more apt to face the threat of contaminated water, which can result in myriad health consequences. For example, a recent study out of UNC-Chapel Hill found that North Carolina residents who rely on private wells are more likely to visit an emergency room for gastrointestinal illness than residents connected to public water systems.
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A few of the key strategies outlined in the report would address this disparity:
▪ Better characterize the population of private well users and evaluate the feasibility of providing community water services in specific regions where appropriate.
▪ Assess and update private well regulations to incorporate regular monitoring and maintenance requirements.
▪ Develop programs and identify resources to support homeowners in the regular testing and maintenance of their private wells.
▪ Improve coordination by state and local agencies to track and understand contaminant trends and correlations.
▪ Promote the development and use of low cost point of use water treatment technologies.
Although some of the recommendations would require new resources, many others simply require increased coordination and the sharing of existing data and information. Furthermore, many of the recommendations are meant to build upon each other and allow for incremental implementation.
As communities across the country and here in North Carolina are affected by unsafe drinking water, the recent report provides a roadmap for policymakers to begin to identify pressing issues and to develop long-term solutions.
Clean and safe water is fundamental to the daily existence of families throughout North Carolina. By implementing wise policies, our state environmental and public health leaders can ensure that a safe source of drinking water is a reality for all citizens.
Jackie MacDonald Gibson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill. Bill Ross is a former secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and a co-chair of the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative.
The full “Safe Water From Every Tap” report can be found at environmentalhealthcollaborative.org/