Contaminated well forces family to not drink water
Throughout the winter months, Dale Schmeling went about daily life with a nagging headache. He couldn’t figure out why, but the culprit quickly became clear when he got results back from a water test.
The well on Schmeling’s farm in Westfield Township east of Blooming Prairie has been contaminated with coliform. Test results conducted on April 4 by the Olmsted Department of Environment Resources showed 15 colonies per 100 ml. Coliform is a bacteria that is a carrier for many other diseases.
Water specialists warned Schmeling to not drink the water as the presence of coliform in the water “is not going to kill you, but you’re going to be sick all the time.”
Schmeling, 79, doesn’t know exactly how old the well is, but thinks it is at least 50 years old. They moved to the farm in 1993.
The level of coliform found in Schmeling’s well is “fairly common,” according to Brian Crabtree, water lab coordinator with ODER. He said 20 percent of wells come back with positive results of coliform.
Schmeling and his wife, Marlys, have since altered their lifestyle by making their well off limits for drinking and resorting to bottled water. Asked about drinking bottled water, Schmeling said: “I’ll do it, but I don’t like it. It’s kind of sad you can’t drink water out of your own well.”
Though he may not like bottled water, Schmeling said his health has improved since making the switch. “I’m better now since I started drinking bottled water,” he said. “I can’t prove it’s because of bottled water, but I haven’t done anything else different,” he added.
While the lab report indicates the results of water quality, it sheds no light on the source of coliform. But Schmeling has his own suspicions.
His 20-acre farm is surrounded by several large feedlot operations. And Schmeling’s well is located about 250 feet from a field where hog manure is applied.
Schmeling has no idea how many pounds of manure has been applied to the area near his well, but he has seen times where it has been double applied.
“My thinking is that it’s coming from the manure they are applying,” Schmeling said in regards to his contaminated well. “There are no other sources of coliform.”
ODER’s Crabtree said common sources of coliform are insects or rodents and run off caused by fertilizers and manure. “Most of the problems we see are gaps in the wells where rodents get in there,” he said. “The source is very difficult to pin down,” he added.
In Schmeling’s case, Crabtree recommends that he chlorinates the well. Disinfecting wells is a fairly involved process, but not difficult to do, Crabtree said. He added well companies can do the job or people can disinfect wells on their own.
If the contamination continues after chlorination, a new well may be needed.
Crabtree recommends that wells get tested annually for bacteria. Most public health departments or environmental resource agencies offer water testing. He stressed that sterile bottles must be used for samples.
The trouble started with Schmeling’s well nearly two years ago when coliform was found in the water, though at lower amounts than what has been found this month. At that time he bleached the well, eliminating the coliform. But now it has come back stronger than ever.
Schmeling said he wasn’t surprised when he got the news of a contaminated well. “We had a feeling that the test wasn’t going to come back good,” he said.
The next step for Schmeling will be to televise the well, which means a monitor will be lowered into the well in an effort to see if there is anything structurally wrong with it.
“I want to find out where the source of the coliform is coming from,” Schmeling said. “My biggest concern is what is happening to the environment.”
For Schmeling, it’s not just about his well, but rather what can be done to help the environment. If the culprit is found to be manure runoff, Schmeling hopes something can be done about it. “I’m worried about my grandchildren and great grandchildren,” he said, “What are they going to live with if I don’t try to stop this? My problem is I want to protect the future for generations to come.”
Specifically, he would like to see better manure management from farmers and improved air quality.
“If we can’t have clean water and clean air, what the hell difference does it make what taxes we pay,” he said.