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A review of modern practices for small and private water supplies in the USA



Year: 2004

David Clapham 1

1 Principal Environmental Health Manager, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council.

Correspondence: 6th Floor Jacobs Well, Bradford, West Yorks. BD1 5RW.
Tel. +44 (0)1274 434381.


This paper is a discussion on the approach to the safety of private water supplies in the United States. In February 2003 I visited the southern states as part of NSF International’s Professional Sabbatical Award. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland jointly support this award. My area of study was the monitoring and control of small drinking water supplies and I was interested in comparing how such supplies were regulated and their microbiological and physico-chemical quality assured. I was aware of areas of best practice in both countries, but because private water supplies are normally small, low-key operations, information exchange concerning them is sparse.

The paper identifies and discusses five key areas of good practice:
● Chlorination as a standard on all small and private water supplies where the public have access;
● The use of the presence/absence test for total and faecal coliforms in water;
● Prior approval of all new small and private water supplies with licensed installers;
● The insistence on additional safety precautions where water supply is under the direct influence of surface water;
● Using laboratory staff to, not only carry out analyses, but also sample the water and carry out repairs to defective equipment on site.

Key Words: Borehole; chlorination; environmental health; private water supplies; USA; wells.


Like the UK, water supplies in the United States are either public or private but the definitions are different and more complex. A public supply has to serve at least fifteen permanent connections or twenty-five people for at least sixty days. It can serve anything from a large metropolis to a small trailer park and may be provided by a city, public organisation or a private company. Public supplies are either community or noncommunity supplies. A community supply has to have at least fifteen permanent connections or twenty-five residents on a year round basis. A non-community supply serves at least twenty-five individuals for at least sixty days in the year. If they are the same people, e.g. at a school or factory they are a non-transient supply. If the water serves an average of twenty-five different people daily for at least six months of the year, it is a transient supply. If the supply is none of the above it is a private water supply and usually serves a single domestic property or business. Many of the community and non-community supplies in the US would therefore be classified in the UK as private water supplies.


Between 1971 and 1985, 45 per cent of reported waterborne outbreaks in the USA were associated with non-community water systems. In 1985 for example, there were nine (60 per cent) from non-community supplies and six of those were from seasonal supplies – i.e. campsites, parks or resorts. At that time there were 180 million community, 20 million non-community and 30 million individual water supply users in the US (St Louis, 1988). A further report in 1997 (USGAO) estimated that fifteen million households obtained their water from private supplies. At that time, coliform bacteria contaminated up to 42 per cent of the private supplies and 18 per cent of them had excessive levels of nitrates.

Public supplies in the US are closely regulated and whenever water is provided to more than twenty-five people, there are clear state or federal standards and requirements (Louisiana DTE, 1985). For example, all water utilities must be licensed, with an annual inspection of the water treatment plant and a yearly report sent to all consumers detailing water quality (Watson, 2003). When a small public supply is operational, even though it would be classed as a private supply in the UK, it needs a minimum number of licensed operatives, depending on size. They must take daily measurements of free chlorine and report the results monthly. These utilities need a ‘water quality monitoring plan’ and a ‘wellhead protection plan’, which has to be updated every three years.

The regulation of private water supplies is less clear-cut and several formal agencies can be involved. The US is, of course, a collection of states with their own legislation based on federal law. Like Europe, individual states have to adopt the overarching legislation and they can include tighter standards but not laxer ones. It is therefore difficult to discuss general water issues in absolutely definitive terms across the whole US. The information discussed here may not therefore apply to every single state, but generally represents the situation in most of them.

In the US, as in the UK, water sources are classified as boreholes (invariably called wells in the US), springs, hand-dug wells, rainwater collection and surface water. Most small water supplies in the US are boreholes but there are a few exceptions such as on the Southern coast of Louisiana where it borders the Gulf of Mexico. Here supplies are subject to saline intrusion and alternative sources such as surface water or rainwater harvesting have to be employed. In mountainous states the sources of water are split between wells (boreholes) and surface and spring supplies, in Tennessee, for example, this is approximately 50:50 (Foster, 2003). However, the US has another fundamental split between types of water supply and that is those that are or are not ‘under the direct influence of surface water’. Groundwater in the US is normally expected to come from a deep aquifer, free from microbiological contamination and not subject to sudden changes in turbidity, conductivity, temperature or pH. They are usually protected against any contamination from the surface and can be relied upon to provide reasonably safe water. Any other supply, where a continuously good quality of water cannot be guaranteed, is considered to be ‘under the direct influence of surface water’. A good definition of this is a supply characterised either by:

● A significant occurrence of insects or other macro-organisms in the water;
● The presence of algae or organic debris;
● Large diameter pathogens in the water such as Giardia lamblia; or
● A supply that is subject to significant water quality changes following precipitation (Foster, 2003).

Each public supply is normally assessed to see whether it is or is not under the influence of surface water. It should not be assumed that boreholes are never under the influence and spring supplies always are. A borehole for example, may be in a karst limestone region and easily contaminated. The supply to a spring on the other hand, may be well protected both by surrounding impermeable layers of rock and its collection chamber construction (although that is less likely). Every state has a set of guidance rules to assist engineers or health officials in deciding whether a particular supply falls within this category (TDEC, 1991). There will, for example, be a requirement to test the raw water for faecal coliforms on a regular basis for a particular period of time. There will also be an expectation that the system will be tested after heavy rain.

If a supply is not under the influence of surface water it will only require chlorination but if it is so influenced, it will need a full filtration system as well. This treatment requirement will, for example, require a 3-log removal of Giardia (reduction by 99.9 per cent). Therefore, being classed as under the direct influence of surface water brings some significant expenses to small water providers. Of course, this does not apply to individual private wells and in most states it only applies to public water supplies. In some states though, for example Michigan, they have adopted a more stringent approach to the safety of smaller water supplies and this rule applies to all supplies providing water to two or more households (Brown, 2003). It will always remains the case however that the first line of defence for the safety of small and private water supplies is protection of the source from contamination, rather than treating the water afterwards.

This appears to be a very sensible way of dealing with potential problems from small water supplies. If the supply can be relied upon to provide safe water, it only has to be chlorinated. In fact, in a few states, if the water to a small supply has proved to be free from coliform indicator organisms over a long period of time, chlorination is not strictly necessary; but this is rare and the possibility of being sued for damages tends to ensure all public and small non-community systems are chlorinated. If the source cannot be relied upon however, not only does it need to be chlorinated but it also must have a good standard of treatment and be regularly monitored, at least monthly. This will improve the water quality to an acceptable standard for many parameters, not just bacteria.

In the UK, this appreciation of the protective nature of chlorine for all water supplies, no matter how small, is usually absent and chlorination is not obligatory even when private supplies provide water to a great number of people. Therefore the protective safety features involved in the use of chlorine, both for accidental contamination of the source and subsequent problems with storage or pipework, are often absent. The UK reliance on infrequent sampling to identify contamination and then asking for treatment to be provided appears to be a much less effective approach.

As well as the general rules about supplies under the influence of surface water, the approach to the safety of individual supplies is based on a prior approval system and appears appropriate to the needs of most areas (Carlson, 2003). The prior approval systems require that:

Boreholes are only drilled by licensed operators. A newly licensed operator will be visited every time they drill a borehole until the inspecting engineer is satisfied they are competent and conscientious. Private water supplies can in fact be exempted from this requirement if the householder takes responsibility for drilling the well. They must however comply with the same strict rules and regulations as the licensed drillers and, as drilling is a skilled and technical operation, it is unlikely that many people would not use a licensed operator.

Drilling operations have to comply with a comprehensive set of rules. Most states have a manual that details everything that needs to be done, from deciding where to drill to post-completion water testing. The rules include carrying out a survey of the area to identify potential contaminating sites, details of construction, including casing, screening and filling in the annular space (between the hole and the borehole casing), post drilling chlorination and wellhead design.

All new wells are formally registered. This has been a legal requirement for many years and ensures the authorities are aware of the supplies in their area and that the water has been tested and is satisfactory. In addition when a property is purchased, the buyer can check if the well is registered. In some states there is no legal duty to register the well, but it is often done to protect the owner in case someone else tries to claim the land or the water.

Wells cannot be sited within a certain distance of a number of potential pollution sources, such as septic tanks, streams and sewers (50 feet – 15.24 metres), cesspools and outdoor privies (100 feet – 30.48 metres, but for single domestic supplies it can be 50 feet – 15.24 metres) and sanitary landfill sites, feed lots, manure piles and similar (100 feet – 30.48 metres) (Louisiana Register, 2002). Some states have a ‘two for one’ rule. For every extra two feet of casing, a pollution source can be one foot nearer (LaBarbera, 2003).

When the drilling is complete, the well is superchlorinated and then tested bacteriologically. The water can only be drunk when the tests are negative.

Licensed drillers quickly become experienced in the geology of the area where they operate. In Brasos, Texas for example, they know that they must drill through one aquifer with high iron and manganese concentrations into a superior one below it (Alanzo, 2003). The borehole has to be sealed at the point it passes through the higher aquifer to stop shortcircuit contamination of the lower one. When the well is being drilled, an experienced driller can tell when the aquifer has been reached as the tailings being brought to the surface usually change consistency. Boreholes are normally drilled using a rig attached to the rear of a specially adapted vehicle, although, where access is difficult or the ground is particularly wet, a separate, towed rig can be used. Some unscrupulous drillers have been known to ‘deep drill’ (go deeper than necessary) to raise costs. If they go too deep (to below sea-level) the water becomes saline.

When drilling is complete, the casing is added and carefully jointed. Casings are either metal (usually steel) or plastic (PVC). Depending on the use of the borehole, the backfilled grouting, filling the annular space, has to be provided to a specified depth. In private domestic boreholes this is usually ten feet (3.04 metres) below ground level. Public or community supplies need backfilling down to the screen (this is the metal grill at the bottom of the borehole, where the water enters). Vacuum pumps are usually fitted to US wells but submersible pumps are also occasionally used. Vacuum pumps have to be kept primed with water to enable them to work and the maximum depth they can operate at is about 200 feet (60.96 metres) (Ham, 2003). If it is necessary to lift water to a greater height than this, a submersible pump must be used.

Other than to ensure there are no new contamination sources in the vicinity, a regular sanitary survey is inappropriate once most boreholes are completed; they are protected from surface contamination and the weather has little impact on water quality. Of course if a major hurricane passes over and protection is ripped out of the ground, this may cause a problem. Similarly, where flooding is common, measures have to be taken to prevent floodwater getting in. In some states, private water supply treatment installers also have to be licensed. Sometimes installers over-prescribe remedial measures or install inappropriate treatment. They can make a lot of money doing this, but also risk losing their license.

Where there is a problem with a public water supply, the electronic media and local press have to be informed. If a campsite or trailer park has water problems, it would also have to post notices until the problem was corrected. However, there is no requirement to report previous sampling to new arrivals. If the problem is so bad as to require immediate action, a ‘boil water advisory’ can be issued. Some states issue these as a matter of course; others are more cautious and only issue them for very serious problems. An example from Tennessee involved flooding from heavy rainfall and snowmelt  that caused muddy, turbid water to enter a small town’s water treatment works, blocking it completely. It took three weeks to put the problem right (Foster, 2003). Occasionally a water utility is surprised that the enforcing authority does not stop them supplying water where there is a really serious problem, but because of the obvious need for water for toilet flushing and fire safety, it is usually considered to be a better idea to issue a boil water advisory.

Where water is in short supply and there are problems with over-abstraction, some states have identified areas classed as Groundwater Conservation Districts (or similar). In these control zones, water use is limited and maximum volumes are laid down for abstraction. Normally, people are not allowed to tap into water in adjoining properties, but it is interesting that in the majority of Texas this rule does not apply. This is due to case law from 1904; if someone moves next to you and drills an enormous borehole and the drawdown renders your well dry, then that is just your bad luck. This is locally known as the ‘law of the biggest pump' (LaBarbera, 2003). Unlike surface water that is publicly owned, groundwater belongs to the owner of the land above it.

In the US, the usual laboratory examination for total and faecal coliforms is the ‘presence absence’ test. There are several different ones and they are usually known by their trade name – the most popular is the ‘Colilert’ system and as a rule, laboratories refer to it by this name. The membrane filtration system as used in the UK was employed in the US until the presence absence test was formally approved by the Environmental Protection Agency after several years of scrutiny. The literature comparing the two methods has indicated that presence absence is the more sensitive (Gleeson and Gray, 1997). Presence absence is also quicker, with results available in eighteen or twenty-four hours. They are equally accurate and the laboratory decides which to use depending on when the sample is received. This is to enable the result to be read during normal working hours. Presence absence analysis has to start within thirty hours of collection. In the UK, samples have to be delivered to the laboratory within six hours and analysis has to start within twelve hours, although recent research has indicated no loss of accuracy if this is extended to twenty-four hours. Where bulk analyses are being made, the cost of analysis is similar for both presence absence and membrane filtration.

Another advantage of the presence absence test is that one examination provides results for both total coliforms (a yellow colour is produced) and faecal coliforms (the sample fluoresces in the presence of ultraviolet light). This is a major step forward as membrane filtration needs two separate samples to be taken and incubated at different temperatures. In addition, the membrane filtration test is a presumptive one and for full confidence, confirmative additional tests are necessary. This whole process can take up to seventy-two hours, which is a long time to wait if the water is found to be contaminated.

Are there any advantages to the membrane filtration system? Is it better to know how many colonies there are in a water supply and thus the degree of contamination? In private supplies, water quality can change quickly over time and different parts of the system may have varying amounts of contamination. It is therefore a little naive to think that a large or small number of colonies will be truly representative of any particular water supply. The UK and US standards for coliforms are the same, i.e. nil total and faecal coliforms per 100 ml, so if any coliforms bacteria are present, the sample has failed and the water is contaminated. Thus you only strictly need a test that says whether coliforms are present. It has been argued (Sartory, 2003) that a good laboratory can tell a lot from the nature of the colonies on a filter but this only holds good for a water supply that is examined on a regular basis, such as those to large public supplies. This will not of course apply to private water supplies.

Another interesting difference between the UK and the US is the litigious approach of many American consumers. It has been suggested (Wood, 2003) that in the US, environmental legislation is often irrelevant because of the strength of the civil liability lobby. In other words, companies and individuals are more frightened of being sued by someone who has been injured by the water they supply, than they are of falling foul of the more formal legal system. Most companies take precautions to prevent themselves from being sued and this is their main driver, far outweighing any worry about the Environmental Protection Agency or state enforcement body. When properties change hands for example, the company giving the loan (the loan agent) requires a certificate of potability. This is to prevent the possibility of being sued by the new occupant, if they subsequently become ill from the water. The seller has to get the water sampled and pays for a certificate. The result is that the water supply is checked for safety whenever the property changes hand. A similar certificate is also required by employer liability insurance companies for small public or private systems at commercial premises such as restaurants or garages. They do not want to have to pay money because their client is being sued for water-related ill-health problems.

In some states chlorination is rare in single domestic borehole supplies, nevertheless bacteriological quality is usually good if the borehole has been drilled within the last fifteen to twenty years. Out of 3,319 private and public wells sampled by Texas A&M University, for example, only 7.5 per cent were contaminated with faecal material (Dozier, 2003). In more mountainous areas, where sources are a mixture of spring supplies and boreholes, the quality is more variable. In Tennessee, where 240,000 families have their own private wells, water quality ranges from good to very poor (Foster, 2003). The majority of the water from these private supplies is un-chlorinated, they are largely unregulated after drilling and are not regulated at all if the supply is not from a borehole. As pointed out to me by Hall (2003): ‘If someone wants to drink out of a muddy hole and it’s a private supply, they can – we still have few freedoms left!’ Some of the problems encountered in Tennessee have included a cross connection with irrigation wells at a country club (to save money); raccoons and skunks being found dead in the system (with fur coming out of the tap) and a cross connection with a sewer pipe at a prison, where a third of the staff and prisoners subsequently became ill.

Chemical contamination problems in water from deep wells are comparatively rare in the Southern states, with most of the small regulatory authorities only having to deal with a handful of failures at any one time. Where there are problems they are typically from leaching (arsenic) agricultural pollution (nitrates), radiological (uranium or radon) and copper and lead from pipework. In some specific geographical regions as well as arsenic, there are other naturally occurring contaminants such as sulphur and fluoride. Iron and manganese in water supplies are also common. Because aluminium is so ubiquitous in the earth’s crust and not considered to be a health-related parameter, it is not analysed for in most laboratories. 

One of the problems encountered more often in the US than the UK is chemical contamination from pollution incidents. These are usually a result of inappropriate industrial waste disposal or accidental spillage. One example is the past practice of pouring used dry cleaning fluid (trichlorethane, etc.) on the ground to get rid of it; another is leakage from defective underground gasoline storage tanks. In rural areas the herbicides atrazine and simazine can be found during the spring spraying season. In Louisiana, the Department of Agriculture has about 150 test wells around the state to monitor the groundwater. There are many ‘hits’ for pesticides in surface waters after the crops are sprayed and education programmes are designed to teach farmers how to use the chemicals responsibly (Carlson, 2003). Nitrates can also be a problem if supplies are near fertilizer usage areas or septic tanks. Of course, once organic chemicals contaminate an aquifer it is difficult to remove them. The wells in the area have to be abandoned and new ones drilled or expensive treatment installed to clean the aquifer. Sometimes, for minor problems, the treatment will involve increased pumping, so that the pollution is physically removed and the contaminated water run to waste. It is important that the water does not re-contaminate another part of the aquifer, so advice has to be sought on its disposal. Another remediation method involves pumping hydrogen peroxide into the well. This feeds oxygen to naturally occurring bacteria that take up some of the contaminants in order to metabolize.

In a few states, mainly Arizona or California, arsenic is a major problem in groundwater, but even in central states such as Michigan, the main driver for change at the moment is the reduction in the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking-water (Brown, 2003). The new US Environmental Protection Agency standard is 10 g/l and many wells will fail this standard - some have up to 200 g/l in their water. The majority have less however and it is considered by some authorities that 25 g/l would be a more suitable standard. The reason is that at this level, there is a sufficient safety factor to prevent serious illness by raising the standard to 25 g/l, but far fewer wells would need remedial treatment. Many systems are presently completely closed and deliver pristine groundwater, but they will now have to be opened up to put treatment in, allowing a possible entry route for contamination.

The authority for enforcing drinking-water legislation depends on whether a state or Tribal Council has formally applied for what is called ‘primacy’. If it has and it meets the conditions required by the legislation, it and not the Environmental Protection Agency enforces the ‘Safe Drinking Water’ statutes. Enforcing authorities have wide-ranging powers to control water quality, including closing systems, seizing records, serving notices and prosecution. Most can also take action based on poor results from a sanitary survey, which is a sensible addition to the enforcer’s armoury. They try to maintain a supportive relationship with the water industry and help and advise where possible. However, if there is a risk to public health they are happy to use their legal powers.

Many authorities also have education programmes for the public, license holders and regulators. The one in Tennessee for example, has been very successful, with microbiological failure rates dropping dramatically year on year (Foster, 2003). The education programme consists of simple, well-explained, graphically descriptive teaching methods that try to give an understanding of the processes and problems involved. One example is the way water operatives are told about the problems caused by falsifying records. If there is a problem with the water and they need help, operatives are informed that if they let the authorities know, they will get it, but if they lie about the results then they may lose their job or get sent to jail. Non-regulatory advice and assistance comes from the ‘Farm A Syst’ programme, which encourages farmers to get their wells tested annually and has access to financial support for health-related improvements. Technically independent from any state or city governance are the Rural Water Associations. Although funded by some states, they are also membership organizations that provide practical advice and advocacy to their members (LRWA, 2002). Membership is open to anyone and there is no minimum number of properties to which they will provide assistance. The Association has advisory leaflets and organizes seminars on particular topics for  members. To attract participants, the associations always provide freshly cooked food at its meetings.

Some older systems have coliform and nitrate failures, usually caused by contamination from old sanitary installations. Where problems are encountered with a small village supply, the usual option is to form a local committee and ask the nearest town or city to connect it to the public supply. Very often a way can be found to achieve this, using a variety of grants and easements (Foster, 2003). The second choice is to drill another well, away from the problem. Many enforcement authorities are not keen on recommending treatment for individual boreholes and see this as a last option; they much prefer to ensure that uncontaminated ground water is used. As with arsenic removal systems, whenever microbiological treatment is put in, a potential path for contamination is introduced. In addition, many treatment systems are not maintained and if this is the case why put one in only to have it fail later on?

Sanitarians in County Environmental Health Departments often have responsibility for drinking water safety. In many states, the owners of all non-private supplies have to send samples to them on a monthly basis (Alonzo, 2003). The samples can be posted and as long as they are received within 30 hours, have not leaked and the water is not too turbid, are examined for the presence of coliforms. Those that fail the standard are notified to the state and the responsible person. If a failure occurs, re-samples are taken and advice is given on potential causes of contamination. Sampling for a larger suite of chemical contaminants is less regular and depends for frequency on the size of the supply or the particular substance being looked for. The owners of the supply can take the water sample themselves but must have attended a training course to be allowed to do it. This does not appear to cause any major problems other than the  occasional failure due to bad practice. Sampling is carried out at the source and not the kitchen tap, as is done in the UK. A sampling tap is usually incorporated in the wellhead design. Water is run for some time but the tap is not usually sterilised (Pontiff, 2003). The water is collected in specially produced small plastic bags that contain sodium thiosulphate. Sometimes chorine solution is run over the tap to prevent cross-contamination from a leaking washer. Where the owner of a property is concerned about their water, sanitarians will visit, sample the water and advise the householder about treatment and best practice. Laboratories also provide simple advice to well owners on potential reasons for contamination, what the results of water testing means and how to chlorinate and flush the system if there is a microbiological problem.

Some universities provide independent water-testing facilities for both chemical and microbiological parameters. They tend to be easier to contact for some rural people than a state regulatory department, because of worries about enforcement action, real or imaginary. University laboratories can be used by anyone and they often receive posted samples from a large geographical area. Plastic containers (such as a baby’s drinking bottle) are sometimes recommended for people sending in a sample where the local water has a boron problem (Pitt and Provin, 2003). Boron can restrict plant growth, thus if a supply has a high boron content, it may have to be abandoned for irrigation purposes. As most glass contains boron, if it is leached into the sample, the laboratory result can be prejudiced and will make a borderline water supply seem worse than it is. The normal solution to the problem of high boron in water is to try and blend it with water containing lesser amounts.

In the US, Native American land is subject to a different set of rules. A good example of the way this system works is the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation, in Arizona. Water, electricity, gas and telephone services are provided by the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority and the federal Environmental Protection Agency checks that legal water responsibilities are met, rather than the Arizona state authorities. An interesting aspect of the work the Utility’s water laboratory is that it is much more hands-on than equivalent positions in the UK (Natividad, 2003). As well as being responsible for a certified microbiology laboratory, the manager collects water samples, does field-testing, cleans out and disinfects water tanks and carries out minor repairs to pumps and treatment plant. To maintain this additional skill base, there are twice-monthly training sessions and some repairs are helped by mobile phone conversations with engineers back at head office. The manager believes this makes it a much more interesting job, as well as making sure that minor repairs are carried out straight away. For example, during one visit she carried out on-site testing at one village for free residual chlorine. It was too low, so the manager went back to the treatment plant, checked through the chlorination system, found a fault, repaired it and reconnected the system – all within the space of an hour. The water was re-tested the next day to ensure the repair had been carried out correctly. This appears to be a very efficient way of maintaining drinking-water safety.

There are two boreholes at each site so that supplies can be maintained if one fails. The borehole systems on the reservation are basically the same, although designs vary slightly. The water from the borehole passes through a chlorinator and then to a storage tank. The disinfection units were in waterproof cabinets and a  sturdy fence surrounded the whole site, with barbed wire around the top. Most pumps were  above ground but a couple were sunk in covered compartments. These are not popular with staff however, as there is a problem with illegal immigrants from Mexico on Tohono O’odham land and these underground areas have been used as hideouts. Other on-site dangers included rattlesnakes and rats. The area around the water stations is open to grazing, but the fence ensures that there is an adequate protection zone for the water supply.

One of the main drinking-water problems in rural areas is effluent from small sewage treatment facilities entering supplies. Some septic systems block up, causing a safety valve to open, allowing raw sewage to flow overland. In other areas there are septic tanks that merely discharge into shallow field drains. Where heavy clay soils do not allow the sewage to soak into the ground, it ponds on the surface and shallow wells can easily become contaminated. A community of about one hundred people in Tennessee was recently subject to a series of hepatitis A outbreaks because of this (Foster, 2003). The community was poorly educated and did not appreciate that they were making themselves ill with their own sewage. Eventually they were given federal financial assistance to sort the problem out. The emphasis of Health Departments and other enforcement authorities is normally on strict control; all septic systems should be visually checked three times a year by a licensed contractor and sampled annually. Another legal requirement for most states is that any sewage discharged onto the surface must be chlorinated. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that there are many problem septic systems still to be found.

Abandoned wells are a particular problem in some states. There are rules for capping abandoned wells (basically a well that has not been used for more than six months) in order to prevent contamination of an aquifer by the unused borehole short-circuiting any protective overlying geology. This can cause major headaches, there are for example, approximately 800,000 uncapped abandoned wells in Texas (Mayhew, 2003). In the mountain areas of Tennessee there is also a question regarding the quality of water supplies at many rural churches. They have their own community supplies but because they are not commercial organisations there is little money for repairs or improvements. The local courts do not look favourably on state agencies taking formal action against them and the pastor is often unwilling to be told what to do by ‘government bureaucrats’. If the congregation are advised about the water and still chose to use it, then it is considered that they have made an informed choice and will often be left to their own devices.

In rural areas therefore, there is often a need for effective health education to persuade people that the water they have drunk for years needs improving. One village recently had a very poor spring supply, with a filter system so old that any treatment media had been washed away years before (Foster, 2003). The village, particularly its water utility manager, were very unwilling to spend any money on the supply and considered the state’s Water Supply Division an irritation. Because of the strength of this opposition, a public meeting was organised to explain the situation. Previously the Division had taken samples of the water and photographed the creatures they had found in it. At the meeting they showed large slides of these creatures, particularly the nematodes, which were ‘big ugly things’. As part of the demonstration they then pointed out to the crowd where the nematode’s anus and genitalia were. Some people in the audience were then physically sick. One of the people who attended the meeting on behalf of the Division said that towards the end he thought that the utility manager was going to be lynched. The water supply was quickly improved.


There is a great deal of good practice in the US. Five key areas of good practice which have been identified are, in no particular order:
● Chlorination as a standard on all small and private water supplies where the public have access. This is a wonderful public health measure and ensures a level of safety not apparent in UK private supplies where, as well as having very little source protection, very few have chlorination or any treatment with a residual effect. It should not be forgotten however that some people will still worry about the theoretical health effects of chlorination by-products on humans.
● The use of the presence/absence test for total and faecal coliforms in water. It is a better form of laboratory analysis and thus a way of identifying contamination. It is quicker, easier and more sensitive.
● Prior approval of all new small and private water supplies with licensed installers. This ensures a level of drinking water safety from the beginning.
● The insistence upon additional safety precautions where water supply is under the direct influence of surface water. This allows additional safety barriers for all supplies that might otherwise cause ill health, should the primary barriers of source protection and chlorination fail, and
● Using laboratory staff to not only carry out analyses but also sample the water and carry out repairs to defective equipment on site.


I would particularly like to thank the NSF International for their financial assistance to enable me to study small and private water supplies in the US.


Alonso, M. (2003) Brazos County Health Department, Brazos, Texas. Personal communication.

Brown, E. (2003) Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Personal communication.

Carlson, C. (2003) Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, Office of Public Health, New Orleans, Louisiana. Personal communication.

Dozier, M. (2003) Texas A&M University. Personal  communication.

Foster, R. (2003) Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation – Division of Water Supply. Personal communication.

Gleeson, C. and Gray, N. (1997) The Coliform Index and Waterborne Disease: Problems of Microbial Drinking Water Assessment. London, E&FN Spon.

Hall, R. (2003) Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Water Supply, Nashville, Tennessee. Personal communication.

Ham, D. (2003) Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin, Texas. Personal communication.

LaBarbera, J. (2003) Resource Development and Conservation Department, State of Texas. Personal communication.

Louisiana DTE (1985) Water well rules, regulations and standards State of Louisiana, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Public Works and Flood Control Directorate, Water Resources Section, November 1985.

Louisiana Register (2002) Water supplies. Louisiana Register Promulgated June 20 2002. 28 (6) 318-1342 LRWA (2002) Louisiana Rural Water Association’s Information Brochure: Serving the Smaller Water and Wastewater Systems. Louisiana Rural Water Association, Kinder, Louisiana.

Mayhew, M. (2003) Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin, Texas. Personal communication.

Natividad, N. (2003). Laboratory Manager Tohono O’odham Utility Authority, Water Department, Sells, Arizona. Personal communication.

Pontiff, D. (2003) Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, Office of Public Health, Lafayette, Louisiana. Personal communication.

St Louis, M.E. (1988) Water-related disease outbreaks 1985 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report On line article www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00001765.htm [accessed 29 April 2003]

Sartory, D. (2003) Severn Trent Water Ltd. Personal communication.

TDEC. (1991) Guidance for Determining if a Ground Water Source is Under the Direct Influence of Surface Water Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Division of Water Supply, August 1991

USGAO (1997) United States General Accounting Office, June 1997 Drinking Water: Information on the Quality of Water Found at Community Water Systems and Private Wells. Report GAO/RCED-97-123)

Watson, K. (2003) Wickson Creek Utility Company, Brazos, Texas. Personnal communication.

Wood, P. (2003) Tetra Tech E.M. Inc. Memphis, Tennessee. Personal communication.