A common question that we get is whether or not well water is safe for drinking. Unfortunately, there are no blanket answers because each well contains water that has different minerals and chemicals. However, there are a few simple things that we can do to minimize risk.
Know the Source
All well water is ground water that is tapped and extracted to the surface. Most groundwater is the product of surface water that has filtered through soil and bedrock before getting trapped in pools that can be as far as a thousand feet below. Sometimes it can take years for water to percolate into these areas whereas some pools can be replenished in a matter of days or hours depending on local sub-surface conditions.
Since the water that we’re tapping into at any given site is the aggregate product of everything that didn’t get filtered out along the way, quality and purity will vary widely. Consequently, it’s important to have a sense of what contaminants may be found in surface water in order to be able to guesstimate what lies below. While this is easier said than done, and there’s no way to know for sure what’s exactly in local water supplies, taking a good look at the surrounding area can indicate whether or not that water may contain harmful chemicals and help to minimize risk.
In short, use good judgment and identify sources that you know are as far from possible sources of contamination before drinking. As a general rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t drink surface water in the area, then you should avoid tapping into that local groundwater supply.
There are all kinds of reliable and inexpensive water quality tests that can be performed on wells, and this is a great way to identify problems with a greater degree of certainty. While this may not be a practical option in say a wilderness survival situation, you can test water supplies now so that you can hone in on safe ones later and incorporate those sites into your planning.
Fortunately, most wells that don’t contain industrial chemicals can be treated, filtered and purified just as easily as they can be tested. For example, water softening is a common treatment that neutralizes minerals that often give well water its distinctive, and not always pleasant, taste. There are also dozens of other treatment combinations that can be utilized based on specific water quality, and many of them use ingredients that are inexpensive and readily available. Aside from treating well water, many supplies can be filtered just like we do with water from other sources.
However, the effectiveness of these methods will depend on whether or not they are designed to remove specific contaminants in the water at the time, and this is why testing, along with having a little knowledge about local aquifers is so important.
While the old-wives tale version of testing well water is to use taste as a guide is still the most-popular option today, it’s also the most-risky. Many contaminants in water don’t produce any odors, discoloration or foul tastes. Consequently, the best way to avoid ingesting things that can make us sick is by being familiar with the source or getting questionable sources tested. Finally, there are plenty of wells out there that have already been deemed safe, and knowing where they are can save you a lot of time and guesswork.
So, in a nutshell, well water is generally safe to drink as long as it comes from an appropriate source. However, it’s up to all of us to do due diligence in order to know where those sources are.