Protecting Your Drinking Water

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Jamie Benning
Program Manager, Water Quality
Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

water from a hydrantMaintaining safe drinking water is critical for human health.  Drinking water for residents of cities and towns is provided by municipal or public utilities.  The utilities obtain drinking water, called source water, from lakes, rivers, or underground aquifers.  The source water may need to be treated to remove or lower levels of any known contaminants, to ensure the water is safe to drink.  Acreage drinking water can be supplied through private wells, rural water districts or associations, or connections to municipal water supplies depending on location, and quality and quantity of source water.  Rural water utilities, public water supplies such as rural water systems, home owners associations, or municipalities are responsible for regulatory testing and treatment of source water to provide safe drinking water to their customers. 

Acreage owners who obtain their drinking water through a private well on their property are responsible for testing and maintaining their well, however, there are many resources through state and local agencies and organizations that can provide assistance.  Yearly testing of private wells for bacteria and nitrates is recommended (typically in April) to maintain drinking water safety.  Periodic testing for pesticides is also recommended as they are applied in many areas of the state to farm fields, lawns, and turf grass and are potential source water contaminants.  Testing is also recommended if changes in color, taste, odor, or hardness or problems with sediment or corrosion in pipes or appliances are observed. 

Testing well water

The Iowa Department of Public Health administers a program for private well water testing.  Water testing kits can be ordered through your local county environmental health department or county sanitarian and may be available at no cost through the Grants-to-Counties Well Program.  Testing kits may also be ordered through the Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory Private Well Water section.  For more information about testing for specific contaminants, visit the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Private Well Testing website. 

Protecting well water

While some groundwater contaminants are naturally occurring in certain aquifers, other contaminants, including nitrates, petroleum products, and bacteria, are influenced by management of the area around the well and within the well capture zone.   Maintaining minimum separation distances between the well and common sources of nitrates, bacteria, and other contaminants are recommended to minimize well water contamination and maintain well water quality.  Separation distances for common acreage and farm contaminant sources can be found in ISU Extension publication PM0840, Good Wells for Safe Water

Source water protection

Managing contaminants not only benefits the private well owner, but also minimizes the impact of common contaminants on neighboring wells, local community source water supplies and surface water.  Groundwater recharges rivers and streams, transporting any contaminants that are not filtered by the soil into surface water.  Following best management practices and recommendations including applying nitrogen fertilizer at Iowa State University recommended rates, proper use and disposal of chemicals, and closure of unused wells will protect drinking water of private well owners and source water for nearby communities. 

Private well and source water protection resources

Iowa’s Private Water Well Program

Well Water Quality and Home Treatment Systems

Iowa Source Water Protection Program

Farm*A*Syst has been adapted to Iowa and is available on the Iowa Farm Bureau website at:

Date of Publication: 
June, 2015