Many Floridians with private wells don’t know how to take care of them
Approximately 12% of Florida’s population rely on a private well for drinking water, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).
That’s about 2.5 million people. Bithlo resident Tara Turner, 50, is one of them.
After years of relying on wells for drinking water, Turner feels quite comfortable maintaining her own well today, which sets her apart from the estimated one-third of Florida well users who don’t know how to care for their wells properly, according to UF/IFAS research.
Dr. Yilin Zhuang, an environmental engineer at UF/IFAS focused on studying water resources, is working with her colleagues to expand Floridians' understanding of well safety, maintenance and testing. She leads public webinars, shares research findings, and is currently compiling resources for a website to help private well owners, which she expects to launch sometime next year.
Zhuang says ultimately, the burden falls on private well users — not a public utility — to ensure their water system is working safely and properly.
“When it comes to private well users, there are just not that many regulations,” Zhuang said. “So it all relies on private well users to manage their wells, and make sure their drinking water is safe to drink.”
Bridging a knowledge gap
Although Turner has lived in Bithlo since age 15, she only very recently moved into her current rental: a three-bedroom house, right off the main drag.
The single-family home is a major upgrade for Turner, a mom of three young adults who says she receives disability benefits and previously always lived in mobile homes, which make up about 43 percent of Bithlo’s housing stock, according to Census data.
“I’ve been living in a trailer for all my life out here,” Turner said. “Now I actually am living in a home: a block home.”
The home came with a huge perk, Turner says: a water softener system for the private well out back that supplies her water. Softener systems help remove calcium and magnesium ions from “hard water,” which can dry out the skin and create a chalky buildup that can damage pipes and appliances.
“I’m just blessed to have had that on here when I moved in,” Turner said.
Normally, Turner says, a water softener system like hers might cost several thousand dollars: way too much for herself or many of her neighbors to afford.
Maintaining the water softener system costs money, too. About once a month, Turner says she spends ten dollars on a big bag of salt to add to the system’s giant reservoir.
“You have to buy special salt, [not] regular salt,” Turner said. “You have to buy the kind that takes the iron out … I mean, it still doesn't even take all the iron out, honestly.”
Iron in water can be unpleasant, giving it a metallic taste and sometimes staining clothing or appliances. Turner blames nearby junkyards for the iron in her water, which she says often turns her bathtub a dark, burnt orange color.
But because iron isn’t considered a risk to human health, its presence in water isn’t regulated the same way as other harmful contaminants: like E. coli, lead and copper. For those kinds of contaminants, government regulators set specific limits called Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs, and enforce them — for public water utilities, not private wells.
Sometimes, Turner says neighbors will phone her up, looking for help with their wells. She’s happy to help whenever she can. Still, Turner wishes she and her neighbors could access important information about their private wells more easily.
“A lot of people aren't [knowledgeable] about this stuff,” Turner said. “There's different things you gotta know about the well; it's not just having it just sitting out in your yard.”
Testing well water for bacteria
Although limited public data exists about how many well users regularly test their water, or drink from contaminated wells, Zhuang says her research confirms a significant knowledge gap exists for well users in Florida.
“They don't have knowledge of private wells. They don't know what they need to test, or where to test,” Zhuang said.
That’s why Zhuang says UF/IFAS started the Florida Well Owner Network, an educational program for Floridians who use decentralized water, including private wells and septic systems. The program, which will launch an online portal of resources next year, aims to teach private well users how to properly manage their wells, and facilitate access to reliable water testing.
One key thing Zhuang says well owners should understand is that water testing is very specific.
“If someone knocks on your door, tests your water just in a one-[milliliter] or two-mil tube, and tells you your water is terrible, you cannot drink it — you probably want to put a question mark on that,” Zhuang said. “And the reason I say that is because every analyte requires their unique process.”
To put it simply: you can’t just conduct one blanket, all-encompassing test to reliably flag for every possible type of harmful bacteria that might be in your water. On the contrary, Zhuang says, you must use different tests to detect different chemical compounds.
Currently, Zhuang’s lab at the UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research and Education Center (MREC) is only set up to screen for coliform bacteria. Generally, coliform bacteria is harmless, except for some types of E. coli that can cause serious illness.
Screening for coliform bacteria is relatively quick and inexpensive, Zhuang says: a good starting point, to help determine whether it’s necessary to test water for more serious contaminants.
“It’s just a really good indicator,” Zhuang said. “If coliform bacteria can find a way into your drinking water, other disease-causing pathogens can also find their way into your well system.”
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health collaborate to survey and sample some private wells through the state’s Well Surveillance Program, with a priority on areas of known or suspected contamination: like agricultural areas, or areas close to underground storage tanks.
There are some financial resources available, through FDEP’s Water Supply Restoration Funding Program, to help supply safe drinking water to private well owners at no cost to them. But that funding is only available if the state tests your well and those tests reveal the water is contaminated.
If your well cap is missing or pipe casing is cracked, Zhuang says it’s “very likely” your drinking water is contaminated — but without properly testing it, there’s no way to know for sure.
“I will not know if your water has bacteria or not until I test it,” Zhuang said. “There's just no way you can see it, smell it. Just looking at a sample, I cannot tell. I have to test it.”
Zhuang is skeptical of most consumer water testing kits sold in retail stores. She’s tried a few herself, and found that while some might be okay for testing water hardness, none are sensitive enough to reliably measure bacteria levels.
“The bottom line is no, they are not accurate enough,” Zhuang said.
Instead, Zhuang advises anybody interested in testing their well water to use a state-certified testing lab, which you can locate using FDEP’s online search tool. Zhuang also encourages private well owners to contact their county’s health department office to learn about available testing options and associated costs.
Those county health offices can help private well owners test their water for bacteria and nitrate, which Florida’s DOH strongly recommends doing at least once a year. Unless it’s covered by some kind of specific assistance program, that water sampling comes at a cost to private well owners: usually $20-$30 per sample, per DOH.
However, Zhuang says she provides complimentary water testing for anybody participating in the Florida Well Owner Network’s educational programs.
“Our preliminary data shows that most private well users, at least [who] attend our program, are low-income families,” Zhuang said. “So we would like to provide this free service to people who need it.”
Caring for the Bithlo community
Turner is a recovering addict. She says she lost her husband to addiction in 2017, but still couldn’t break free from the cycle herself — until she got into a serious bike wreck, leaving her with a traumatic head injury.
“I had to learn how to walk and talk and eat and everything all over again,” Turner said.
Now, Turner says helping others is her passion: from her new part-time gig as a peer support specialist, to being a voice for the many other Bithlo residents who she says are concerned about the quality of their drinking water.
“It’s made me turn my life around, and care about the community,” Turner said. “A lot of people are afraid to speak up, so I want to speak on the behalf of everybody out here.”
Sometimes, Turner says she and other Bithlo residents feel ignored.
“Because it’s a low-income area, they look at us different. We’re not any less than anybody else,” Turner said.
Yet “Bithlo is an example of a community that has been forgotten about by government, both federal and local,” said U.S. House Representative Maxwell Frost (D- Florida), addressing EPA Administrator Michael Regan during a September committee hearing.
“When we’re out there chatting with residents, people are scared,” Frost said. “They don’t know what the quality is of the water they’re drinking.”
During that September hearing, Regan told Frost he would make sure to fulfill Frost’s request to meet with Florida’s regional EPA administrator, show them around Bithlo and discuss ways to help the community.
Meanwhile, Orange County Utilities plans to connect 337 single-family homes in the Bithlo area to public water services by fall of 2025, a project funded with more than $9 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.
For Turner, despite serious challenges facing her Bithlo community — from addiction to water quality concerns — there’s still plenty to be hopeful about.
It’s a powerful lesson she’s learned in recovery: “There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Turner said.