- Mendocino County
- Anderson Valley
by Mark Scaramella, March 16, 2016
A few weeks ago the Community Services District, as part of their preparation for a grant application for a possible municipal water and sewer system in downtown Boonville, paid Alpha Labs in Ukiah to test about two dozen private wells on small parcels both in the Haehl Street area of Boonville and a few more wells on the north end of town around the Anderson Creek Bridge were also tested.
Samples were taken from tap water with the permission of the home owner or renter on site. Most of the small parcels have decades old small homes and cottages connected to similarly old wells.
Preliminary findings by Ukiah's Alpha Labs indicate that most of the samples tested positive for coliform and more than half had high levels of nitrates.
The test results have been summarized by Alpha Labs in Ukiah soon and provided to the CSD for use in future grant applications, but the summary identifies the samples by number, not by name, address or parcel.
The test results for each Boonville parcel will be provided directly to individual residents or property owners by the laboratory for their own information or action.
The water from most of the 23 wells tested is not fit for human consumption. The wells selected for testing were on small parcels whose structures, wells and septic fields are very close to each other. They were assumed to be the most likely to have contamination problems.
These worrisome results are not a surprise to most locals long aware of contamination problems in these neighborhoods, although perhaps not aware of the extent of the problem. The residential areas of central and south Boonville are the most densely occupied areas of the Anderson Valley.
Some residents of the tested parcels said that they do not drink the water, choosing instead either bottled water or water from neighbors, clean local springs, or commercially purchased water from pristine sources.
Generally, owners of private wells are responsible for testing and taking whatever steps necessary to produce potable water. Some of the residents in the problem areas in Boonville are renters and some are owners, so available options vary from parcel to parcel and well to well. According to the Washington State Health Department's private well water brochure for instance, renters are urged to speak with their landlord about getting water tested and assuming responsibility to deal with negative results.
One of the recommendations in the Washington State information includes, "You should also test your water when you hear that a neighbor's water is contaminated" — which obviously means that it would be a good idea for anyone with a well in the vicinity of Haehl Street or on the north end of Boonville along Highway 128 should have their water tested for coliform and nitrates.
Typically, nitrate and coliform contamination is the result of: leaky septic tanks, household wastes, livestock waste, pesticides and fertilizers (and other industrial sources which don't apply in Boonville).
Again, according to the Washington State Department of Health, "If your nitrate test shows levels higher than 10 ppm, find a different and safe drinking water supply. The quickest thing to do is to begin using bottled water for drinking and food preparation. Do not boil water with high nitrates. Boiling water contaiminated with nitrates may actually increase the nitrate level. Another option is to install a device designed to remove nitrates from your water. These devices are usually installed on kitchen faucets, where people get their water for drinking and cooking. Nitrates are not absorbed through the skin so it is safe to clean and bathe with nitrate-laden water. Other longer-term solutions include drilling a deeper well into a different groundwater source, connecting to a public water system, or working with others in your community to develop a new public water system to serve your home and nearby neighbors."
Well drilling is quite expensive, and these areas of Boonville do not have a public water system option. The Community Services District hopes to begin a grant-funded years-long process that would result in clean, safe water delivery and sewage disposal.
The Washington State Health Department continues, "Coliform tests usually come back as either Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory. An Unsatisfactory report indicates that the water may be contaminated. Do not drink any water which does not test Satisfactory." They then repeat the same recommendations for nitrates adding, "The quickest thing to do is either begin using bottled water or, if the problem is coliform and not nitrates, boil all water for drinking and food preparation. This also includes water used for making ice or coffee, brushing teeth and washing fruits and vegetables that you eat raw. Boiling water rapidly for one minute usually kills coliform bacteria."
"Nitrogen is a chemical found in most fertilizers, animal manure and in septic tanks. Natural bacteria in the soil can change nitrogen into nitrate. Rainwater and irrigation water can carry nitrate down through the soil into the groundwater."
Since the Boonville tests were done in the rainy season, it is likely that the levels were higher at the time the samples were taken than they would have been in the summer.
"Coliform bacteria are organisms that are present in the environment and in the feces of humans and animals. Coliform bacteria will not likely cause illness, but their presence in drinking water indicates disease-causing organisms may also be present."
The Washington State Health Department notes that if the tests come back with both coliform and nitrate levels exceeding acceptable standards, residents “should find a different and safe drinking water supply" — typically bottled water. "Do not boil water with both coliform and nitrates. It may increase the nitrate levels, making the problem worse."
Home water treatment units are available which include filtration systems, reverse osmosis systems, distillation systems, and others, but they all come at a cost, sometimes high.
The depths and ages of the Boonville test wells is not known. Theoretically, deeper wells have less contamination. Older wells are more likely to have damaged or leaky casings or seals which can compound the contamination problems.
Obviously, the results indicate that either a municipal water or sewer system or combination of both is badly needed for central Boonville. Even these preliminary test results are ample justification for grant and loan applications from state and federal agencies.
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Update: Mendocino County Environmental Health Director Dave Jensen is aware of the test results and has told the CSD officials involved that “we would never take any kind of red tag action” on private wells. Instead, the County issued a public health warning for Boonville last week:
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Water Quality Concerns For Boonville
(Press Release from Mendocino County Environmental Health)
The Anderson Valley Community Services District recently tested 23 private water wells around the Boonville area. The results of their testing has shown 21 of the samples have some issues of contamination. Coliform bacteria, E. coli and an indicator of fecal contamination were indicated.
Mendocino County Public Health Officer Dr. Connie Caldwell states that, “Coliform bacteria are found in soil, on plants, and in water. These bacteria typically do not make you sick but may indicate the presence of other more harmful germs. Fecal coliform bacteria, such as E. coli, are a specific kind of bacteria. These are also usually harmless, but may mean that feces and harmful germs have found their way into your water system and can cause diarrhea.”
Dr. Caldwell also explains that “The presence of nitrates in groundwater is generally associated with septic system and fertilizer use. Nitrates pose the greatest risk to infants. Although boiling water before consumption can mitigate the threat of bacteria, it often increases the concentration of nitrates. Families with young children should avoid making infant formula with water that contains high levels of nitrates or bacteria.”
Those concerned about the quality of their well water may wish to have their water tested independently. This test can be done by Alpha Analytical Laboratories of Ukiah. Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) have made available sampling kits and instructions from Alpha Labs at the Boonville Fire Department for residents to access. The water samples must be taken to Alpha Laboratories in Ukiah at 208 Mason Street on the same day they are collected. Alpha Lab’s cost to test for bacteria is $37 and for nitrates is $35 and is payable to them. If you are unable to transport your completed water sample to Ukiah, HHSA may be able to help you. Please contact [Environmental Health Director] Dave Jensen at 707-234-6625.
Water quality at restaurants, hotels and other commercial venues that serve the public are routinely tested during the County’s regular inspection of those facilities.
Dan Hamburg, Supervisor of the Fifth District, has actively been working with County staff upon hearing the results of the Boonville water tests. The goal of Supervisor Hamburg and the County is to assist the residents of Boonville by providing information and education on safe water.
Information packets, including fact sheets, water system disinfection instructions and ways to protect your private water system are available at the Boonville Fire Department and can also be requested from HHSA Environmental Health by calling 707-234-6625 (Ukiah) or 707-961-2714 (Fort Bragg) or by visiting http://www.co.mendocino.ca.us/hhsa/chs/eh/.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in Santa Rosa is also a resource of information for local residents. They can be reached at 707-576-2220.