"I believe it is one of the best lessons they have learned this year." Thus spoke teacher Bill Moore after Cacapon Institute delivered the "Keep Well Water" presentation to his students. This project brought ground and drinking water health issues into classrooms with a hands-on workshop. Using EPA and member support, we gave students in four schools direct experience with EPA-approved methods of presence-absence bacteria testing and a chance to test their home drinking water. We preceded each lesson with a look at the WV Instructional Goals and Objectives of the class to maximize the relevance of the content, and we administered a pre- and post-activity assessment to help us measure our impact. All to ensure that the young people of the region know that pure abundant drinking water is not to be taken for granted!
Cacapon Institute staff met with students ranging from 4th graders to high school seniors in Hampshire, Hardy, Grant and Mineral counties. With the help of their teachers we explained the testing protocols for detecting bacteria, more specifically total coliform and E. coli bacteria, in drinking water. The students then went home with 100 milliliter test vials, data sheets and permission slips, and sampled their water. They brought their samples to school the following day, added a growth medium and placed them in an incubator at 35 degrees Celsius for 24 hours.
Then the fun began. Given the range of ages we worked with, the analysis and discussion differed from class to class. Common through all the discussions was a analysis of the drinking water samples for the presence of total coliform and E. coli bacteria. The total coliform test was based on a comparison of the sample and a certified standard benchmark with a positive test showing as a distinctive yellow color. E. coli was revealed by shining a blacklight on the samples--vials with E. coli present glowed!
Tallying the results provided an excellent opportunity for the students to organize and analyze their data. Of course, after seeing that not all water is bacteria-free students were often eager to discuss the implications. Our post analysis discussion included how wells can become contaminated, how bacteria in water wells can be eliminated, and the effects of geology and weather on water quality.
"Keep Well Water" Project Results
The primary goal of this activity was educational rather than scientific so we have to interpret these results carefully. Some indications that the data we collected approximate the actual level of contamination include the fact that only two samples of municipal water tested positive for coliform bacteria--if the students were less than careful with their methods this would have been reflected by more tests on city water showing the presence of coliforms. Also, these tests show similar levels of contamination as was shown with similar well water testing done by Cacapon Institute in 1999 which found that 60% of wells tested in the Cacapon River Watershed were contaminated with bacteria. Click here for Results of 1999 Well Water Testing (8 KB, PDF file). On the other hand, there was some confusion on the data sheets with many students either marking both "well" and "spring" as their source of drinking water, or source data was missing. Overall, we think that the results correctly show that a significant number of area wells and springs test positive for coliform bacteria contamination.
If the water in a well is indeed contaminated with coliform bacteria this is an indication that somehow either surface water is leaking into the well or that the groundwater itself is contaminated. If the problem is surface water getting into the well itself, this can often be corrected simply by disinfecting the well and repairing the source of the leak, for example, patching (or installing) the cement pad around the well casing. If the problem is actually groundwater contamination, correcting the problem will either require a home disinfection system (using chlorine or ultraviolet lights) or finding a new source of water.
E. coli bacteria live in the digestive tract of warm-blooded animals. When there is E. coli contamination of a well this indicates that water containing fecal material may be entering the well.
For more information on ground water health, visit the American Ground Water Trust
This project was funded in part by the U.S. EPA Environmental Education Program. However, it does not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of the EPA.