Fall 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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Rural Water Quality Database

The primary goal of the project described in this article was to create an ongoing water quality database for private drinking water supplies in New York State and to make sure of a statewide educational program to collect the data. A secondary goal was to develop this educational program so rural residents could increase their knowledge of water supply management and Extension field staff could use it as an opportunity to coordinate local efforts on water issues.

Ann Lemley
Associate Professor and Department Extension Leader
College of Human Ecology
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Internet address: alemley@cce.cornell.edu

Linda Wagenet
Extension Associate
College of Human Ecology
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

While improving water quality is a major National Initiative for Extension, a lack of sufficient data about rural water supplies limits the potential effectiveness of outreach educational efforts.

In New York State, for example, six million residents rely on groundwater for drinking water. Of this number, 2.3 million people use private water systems with many of these homes also having onsite sewage treatment.

Private water supplies aren't regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act or under the New York State Sanitary Code. Wells and well drillers aren't subject to registration or regulation in most New York counties. The only regular testing of private supplies occurs when property is sold, usually at the request of financial institutions involved in the transaction. The State Department of Health is concerned, but its primary responsibility is public water supplies.

The scarcity of resources in the public sector underscores the need for innovative approaches to collecting water quality data. At the same time, homeowners know very little about groundwater and how to protect it, what to get the water tested for, how to interpret the tests, or what treatments are appropriate. This situation creates an opportunity for coordinated efforts by local agencies, including Extension, to collect information about private water systems while providing educational programs for rural residents faced with decisions about their private water and wastewater systems.

The primary goal of the project described in this article was to create an ongoing water quality database for private drinking water supplies in New York State and to make use of a statewide educational program to collect the data. A secondary goal was to develop this educational program so rural residents could increase their knowledge of water supply management and Extension field staff could use it as an opportunity to coordinate local efforts on water issues.

Conducting Water Clinics

To collect the data and meet the educational objectives, Cornell Cooperative Extension specialists developed a rural water clinic program. While the idea of rural water clinics isn't new, the approach taken has enabled field staff, with some training, to take major responsibility for a continuing series of clinics in their counties and to contribute to a research project.

A preliminary meeting of field staff was held to discuss how to implement a series of clinics, facilitate water testing, and interest local agencies in cosponsoring the clinics. From that assessment meeting, materials were provided to all interested agents. The materials included lists of certified labs to test drinking water in a given county, contaminants for which data were being collected, optional water tests and local agencies likely to participate on a committee on water quality issues; a sample agenda for a clinic; suggestions for local and state specialists who could speak on specific topics; educational resources; and a sample evaluation questionnaire.

During the first and second years of the clinic program, special USDA funding for water quality was used to provide rebates to participants who had their water tested and to support development of materials and some travel to counties. Field staff were encouraged to work with testing laboratories to get a quantity discount for the testing. In some counties, residents were able to get water tested for coliform, nitrate, pH, and many nuisance chemicals for $20.

Inservice educational opportunities were scheduled for field staff to provide background on topics where additional training was required. The sessions held in the first two years covered: water testing and interpretation, home water treatment, private water supplies, household hazardous waste, and onsite sewage systems. Educational materials, primarily from Cornell Cooperative Extension, were provided.

Local committee participants included representatives from testing laboratories, health departments, soil and water conservation districts, citizen groups, and septic contractors. The typical agenda for a clinic included topics on the nature of water resources, prevention of contamination, nature of contaminants and their health effects, testing, private water supply construction and maintenance, and appropriate water treatment measures. Some clinics were held in two sessions, a day, a week, or a month apart. The second session usually included expanded information on onsite sewage systems and/or household hazardous waste management.

Since Spring 1989, 29 rural water clinics held in New York State have followed the format described above. Participants have had their water tested for coliform bacteria and nitrate by certified drinking water laboratories. Most participants also received test results for other selected parameters such as pH and dissolved solids. In the early stages of the program, participants got sample bottles at the clinic and test results were sent to the county agent at the convenience of the participant. Feedback from field staff indicated that in those counties where water sampling was coordinated with the lab before the clinic and test results were returned at the clinic, more data were collected and the participants were more involved in the discussion. This gave participants an opportunity to learn more about test interpretation than if testing were done after the clinic. Most clinics are now organized this way.

Water Test Results

The water test data collected by the laboratories and Extension agents were provided to us for evaluation. Data from about 800 private water supplies tested since Spring 1989 are shown in Figure 1. About 100 reports weren't differentiated with respect to type of well, so these results aren't included in the breakdown for a specific type of water supply. An important inference from the data is the higher probability of bacteriological contamination in dug wells and springs compared to drilled/driven wells. Dug wells often aren't sealed from surface water runoff and usually aren't considered by health officials to be reliable supplies of potable water. Communicating this information to the public is important. The positive coliform results for drilled/driven wells identify the need for careful water supply management even if the well seems to conform to established standards. Homeowners don't always shock- chlorinate the well after maintenance or repair of the pump, the top of the well is sometimes below grade and not sealed properly, and well casings aren't always intact.

Figure 1. Results of 791 water tests.

The nitrate results in this study showed that 2.9% of the samples were above the 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) drinking water standard. This is comparable to the results reported in the National Pesticide Survey conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency.1 In that study, about 2.4% of the 752 rural domestic wells sampled had nitrate levels above the drinking water standard. The number of water supplies with detectable nitrate (> 0.2 mg/L) was 41%. This isn't surprising in rural areas where agricultural and onsite sewage sources of nitrate are ubiquitous, but it's an indication that home-owners should have their wells tested regularly for nitrate to ensure the levels don't go above the drinking water standard.

Coliform and nitrate results can be compared to results in another project we conducted at the same time. Separate, focused water quality studies were undertaken in three New York State counties to determine practices and perceptions related to private water and onsite sewage systems.2 A total of 244 participants were contacted individually on a random basis within a given geographical unit. This is in contrast to the participants in the rural water clinics, who chose to become educated about their water supplies. In the focused studies, 32% of the water supplies tested had positive coliform, compared to 19% of the clinic participants' wells, and less than one percent had nitrate above the 10 mg/L drinking water level compared to 2.9% of the clinic participants. The number of samples with nitrates above the drinking water standard is so low that the difference in results in the two types of studies isn't significant, but the results for coliform are worth noting. Those choosing to participate in the clinics had water of better quality with respect to bacteriological contamination than the more random sample in the focused studies. This difference can't be attributed to the percent of dug wells or springs in each sample, since they're similar-22% in the clinic samples and 18% in the focused studies. This suggests that people who attend water clinics may be more concerned than the random sample of homeowners and may therefore have solved some of the obvious problems with their water supplies that would allow bacteriological contamination.

Clinic Evaluations

An evaluation of each clinic was conducted immediately after the event, and a summary indicates that participants gained useful knowledge and planned to change their behavior. The question, "Because of this workshop I plan on the following..." evoked such responses as: more frequent testing of our water, replace my activated charcoal unit, have my well water tested (majority of answers), share the information with my family, reevaluate my present water system, and seal my dug well.

Indepth, follow-up evaluations of four clinics were done during the Summer of 1991, 12 to 18 months after the clinics. The response rate for 235 questionnaires sent out was 34%. While this response isn't what's needed for statistical analysis or generalizing to the population of clinic participants, we have studied it for trends. A marked increase exists in respondents getting drinking water supplies tested as a result of the workshops. Fifty-one percent had their water tested in the past, 92% percent had their water tested at or since the workshop, and 86% stated they intended to have their water tested in the future.

Respondents rated the usefulness and value of the information as moderate to high, and most reported they were better able to make decisions about treating water, choosing among alternative treatments, and maintaining a well after the clinic. Sixty-seven percent of respondents were able to make decisions about whether to treat water after the workshop compared to 30% before. Fifty percent of participants were able to choose among alternative treatments of water after the workshop compared to 12% before, and 59% of participants were able to maintain a well after the workshop compared to 38% before. Respondents also indicated they were influenced either to purchase or not purchase specific water treatment equipment using information from the workshop. The follow-up evaluation suggests that the educational objectives of the water clinics are being met, although results from a larger sample of participants are needed to confirm these findings.


Cornell's rural water clinic program has been successfully used to develop a database of private water supplies in New York State. The information gathered indicates quality problems exist with these supplies throughout the state that should be communicated to residents. This database should help convince policymakers to support local health departments, educational programs, and new regulations to help New Yorkers relying on private water supplies. Summaries of the water quality data collected in the study now provide an important tool for raising awareness of private water quality issues. From the high attendance at clinics and the comments of the participants in the immediate evaluations, it's also clear rural residents want to know how to manage these supplies and can increase their knowledge.

Another major outcome of the program has been a demonstration of the ease with which an Extension educational program with its own set of worthwhile goals can be used to collect important research data. The field staff were very cooperative in helping the authors in this endeavor. They received education and training and are now able to make presentations, handle questions, and talk knowledgeably with their local colleagues about water quality issues. Extension field staff have made valuable contacts with others in their communities who are concerned with water quality issues. In one county, water clinics were held in four of the towns, and elected officials participated. In many counties, Extension field staff have joined with colleagues from local agencies to form water quality coordinating committees and have applied to the state for additional water quality funding. Coalitions such as this are long-term partnerships that will continue to work on local water quality issues.


1. National Survey of Pesticides in Drinking Water Wells, Phase I Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, 1990).

2. Contact article authors for unpublished reports cited here.