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Making the Water Well

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

The average depth of a water well in Oklahoma is 175 feet deep, according to Oklahoma State University Extension. However, not all wells are equal.


OSU Extension in conjunction with the Oklahoma Water Resources Center provides free well water screenings to counties across Oklahoma. Kevin Wagner, director of OWRC, began this project in 2018.


The idea came to Wagner when he collected data from Oklahomans about water issues, he said, and their most common concern was access to safe drinking water.


“Helping people understand their water safety is the goal of this project,” Wagner said.


To create the water well screening project, Wagner worked with Karen Hickman, environmental science professor, and Tyson Ochsner, plant and soil sciences professor.


Anyone can bring well water samples for free screenings to collection events, which occur at fairgrounds, OSU Extension offices and libraries.


The only thing required of residents is to complete a contact sheet with their personal information and bring water samples in a new plastic water bottle with their names, location of where the water was drawn, and the time of collection clearly labeled on the outside of the bottle.


The samples are taken to the Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering lab on OSU’s Stillwater campus to be tested for E. coli, hardness levels, nitrate levels, total dissolved solids, arsenic and pH levels.


In the lab, James Lee, biosystems engineering junior, and Kaylin Hall, civil engineering sophomore, test the collected water and record the data.


After the data has been recorded, Jeff Sadler, water resources specialist for OSU Extension, reviews the test results and notifies well owners of their results via email.

Participants can expect results from the screening to be in their inbox within seven days of collection.


Sadler also provides participants and OSU Extension educators with educational materials after they have received their results. Sadler and his undergraduate students have conducted in-person meetings where residents can ask questions and learn firsthand how to keep their drinking water safe, Sadler said.


“We provide well owners with guidance and resources,” Wagner said.


The Rural Renewal Initiative at OSU has provided additional help by assigning student scholars to the project. Rayna Ellison, environmental science alumna, worked in southwest Oklahoma and collected water samples when the program was in the beginning stages.


“Through Rayna’s data, we found the nitrate levels were relatively normal in the samples submitted,” Ochsner said. “What surprised me to some extent was the total coliform and E. coli levels. They were concerning and unexpected.”


 These results provided even more of an increased need for the program, Ochsner added.


Since the initial pilot phase, well water screenings have taken place in many areas of Oklahoma. One of the more popular collections took place in Alfalfa County in the spring of 2022.


“We collected over 100 samples in Cherokee, Oklahoma,” Wagner said.


Citizens specifically asked to have the sulfate levels tested, Wagner said. At the time, the lab had no ability to measure sulfate, so they worked to locate a test. As suspected, the water collected in Alfalfa County was high in sulfate, Wagner continued.


Water screenings have taken place in about a dozen counties across Oklahoma, and 24 water well testing events are planned for 2024. Each event will include drinking water quality education programs and regional water quality health assessments.


“We find a lot of samples have bacteria,” Wagner said. “We recommend the owners get a sample retested by a certified lab and find another source of drinking water.”


For some issues, owners can implement ways to improve their water quality, he said. For example, if a water sample has high amounts of nitrates, the owner can install specific filters.


“Everyone should have access to clean, safe drinking water,” Ochsner said. “It’s a basic human need.”


Well owners should have their water tested once a year for bacteria and once every three years for other elements, Wagner said.


Ochsner said he appreciates the work Wagner is doing to ensure Oklahomans know their drinking water is safe.


“My goal is to reach every county, informing them about water quality potential,” Wagner said.


Read the full Cowboy Journal article here.

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