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Pure and simple: first of its kind support for MN private well owners

Keith Koltes of Luxemburg Township is among the quarter of Minnesotans who get their drinking water from a private well. Today, Koltes is at a nearby municipal building, and he’s holding a cooler stocked with water from his kitchen tap.

Koltes waiting for water testing.

“I received a card in the mail for a free test,” says Koltes. “I haven’t had a test done in 10-12 years, but I’m not too worried about it.”

Koltes is taking part in a well water screening event hosted by the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Minnesota Well Owners Organization (MNWOO) and the Minnesota Groundwater Association (MGWA). MNWOO provides free, accessible and private testing for well users to check their water for nitrates and chloride.

“Whether it's your well, it's your treatment system, it's your plumbing or your aquifer, you must test your water to know what types of actions are important,” says MNWOO’s co-founder, Jeffrey Broberg. “That’s why we host 10 or 12 of these clinics a year.”

When the clinic finishes testing Koltes’ water sample — in 20 minutes or so — the results will fall into one of two buckets. Hopefully, he will be one of 80% of well users in Minnesota who have clean, safe water coming out of the kitchen faucet. But if his sample results indicate the presence of contaminants, MNWOO’s wellspring of volunteer experts — from plumbers to water scientists — are on hand to help people find solutions. Anyone who visits the clinic is invited to connect on the spot, to get their questions answered and develop an individualized treatment plan based on their results.

Materials and equipment for water testing.

This community-based approach to well-water testing is new in Minnesota and in high demand. Nitrates can reach well water in several ways. Potential sources include agricultural run-off and fertilizer, animal waste, household septic waste and local industry. But whatever or whoever causes it, when someone’s private well water tests positive for contaminants, it’s the well owner’s problem alone. Solutions can be challenging and costly. Additionally, the process of testing has often been commercialized by private businesses who charge high fees. Other times, testing is coordinated by local governments for a fee, who then have access to the well owners' testing results. It’s for these reasons that some well users have expressed wariness to even get a water test in the first place. 

For Broberg, he hopes these deterrents and fears will soon be water under the bridge. He and the team at MNWOO are working to empower individual well users with the knowledge they need to protect their access to safe drinking water. 

Where there’s a well there’s a way

As a Minnesota licensed Professional Geologist, Broberg knows the importance of testing his well water and the seriousness of contaminants. Years back, the well water at his farm in St. Charles, Minnesota tested positive for a high level of nitrates. He responded by hauling his drinking water from a friend’s home and continued for about a decade.

“People are surprised by the tangible health issues. Nitrates in drinking water are linked to serious outcomes like ‘blue baby syndrome,’ and recent studies even suggest links to colon cancer and neural deformities in infants,” says Broberg. “High arsenic levels can cause diabetes; bacteria can cause a host of gastrointestinal problems; developmental issues can be caused by high levels of lead leaching from plumbing and fixtures. This is why you don’t want to be drinking contaminated water.”

A volunteer tests a well water sample at the free clinic.

Broberg says it was his own experiences as a private well owner and a geologist that led him to co-found MNWOO in 2018. The organization works to preserve, protect and restore Minnesota’s water resources. What started as a small team of volunteer geologists has grown quickly. MNWOO has enlisted over 100 volunteers and over 50 supporting partners.

In 2021, MNWOO linked up with the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) in Central and Southeast Minnesota. With the help of various academic researchers, including a graduate student supported by the Mary Page Fund, RSDP and MNWOO developed countless educational materials for physicians, well users and community members, as well as a research report on how to best approach individual communities.

Broberg says, “This is something that was really missing. Nobody had any of this. We've gone from the original idea of helping people understand the contaminants and the treatment options, to being much more sophisticated and effective in our outreach and communication. And that really comes back to the help of RSDP and the community partners.”

Brick by brick

MNWOO’s first invitation to do a water testing clinic was with ‘Toxic Taters,’ a White Earth Nation nonprofit focused on preventing pesticide drift. Since then, RSDP has joined a rising swell of community partners, including water resource professionals, municipalities, businesses and non-profit organizations that have joined MNWOO’s effort to educate and empower Minnesota well users.

Broberg says the flood of community support is gratifying.

“All of a sudden we look up and we have 50 partners across the state, and everybody that we talk to gets it,” says Brobeg. “They understand that private well owners need support, that it needs to be convenient and low cost. Partners understand that well owners need education that's meaningful to them — not a lecture from talking heads. They simply want to know what the impact is at their kitchen sink.”

Back at the Stearns County water testing event, Keith Koltes is waiting for his results when his number is called by the volunteer testing team. Koltes learns that his nitrate levels have increased in recent years. But according to the Minnesota Department of Health standards, his water is still safe for drinking. Among other things, the clinic team recommends that he keep testing his water regularly.

Local residents wait their turn to have their well water tested.

Koltes is one of a few thousand well users who’ve had their water tested at these clinics in the past few years. But Broberg says, that’s just a drop in the bucket. There are an estimated 980,000 private wells in Minnesota. That’s why MNWOO and their partners want to keep expanding the program. The need has always been present, but now there’s momentum from the community as well.

“We knew that people came to the clinics with trepidation and worry about the results,” says Broberg. “But what we didn't expect was how much everybody would want to come and talk about their well’s history, things that have gone wrong, how it was fixed or how much it costs. We just couldn’t have imagined how much people simply love talking about their water and wells!”

Learn more

A recent University of Minnesota report on well water testing clinics shares resources for encouraging private well owner participation, a training manual for testing clinics, and other materials. We invite policy makers, local governments and community members to access these tools and learn more.

Report: Safe Drinking Water at the Kitchen Tap

Emily Haeg Nguyen, September, 2023

Emily Haeg Nguyen works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).

Permission is granted to news media to republish our news articles with credit to University of Minnesota Extension. Images also may be republished; please check for specific photographer credits or limited use restrictions in the photo title.

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