What's the Difference Between Well Water and City Water?

Drinking water has become an increasingly larger issue as more cases of severe contamination make their way into the news. The most pronounced example of this is the Flint water crisis of 2014. The causes of that incident still are not entirely resolved. Flint is an example of the potential problems with city water. The other source of water many Americans use is well water, which has problems and advantages of its own.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 13 million households rely on water from their own wells. The EPA does not regulate this source of water. People, for the most part, are expected to keep track of the safety of their own water. Several common tests can detect trouble with well water. These include tests for “total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels,” the agency says. Among the riskiest parts of owning a well is where the water comes from. In some cases, it is water on the surface of the ground that eventually makes its way into the water table. Another issue is septic systems that are close to a well. Among the most difficult issues to detect is whether nearby industrial or commercial activity can affect the water quality.

Most people who use wells live far outside cities serviced by public water facilities.

U.S. public drinking water systems are regulated by the EPA. It represents 90% of the water used by households. There are over 150,000 public water systems in the country. Some are privately operated. Towns, cities and other municipalities operate others. The EPA’s technical definition of these public facilities is “A public water system provides water for human consumption through pipes or other constructed conveyances to at least 15 service connections or serves an average of at least 25 people for at least 60 days a year. A public water system may be publicly or privately owned.”

Public water systems are tested based on EPA standards. The Flint water problem shows that is not always the case.  That means among the risks to public water is that the owners of the systems do not adequately test them. This is one reason why Flint is among the least desirable places for people to move in to. But it’s not the absolute worst — these are the 50 worst cities to live in America.

More than 90 potential contaminants make the EPA’s list of what should be tested for. The rule for testing is, “The legal limit for a contaminant reflects the level that protects human health and that water systems can achieve using the best available technology.” States can set their own testing rules, as long as they go beyond the EPA rules. The rules about water testing are too complex and different enough to say whether well water or public water is better. Some people argue that well water tastes better. People in many cities think they have the best-tasting water in the world. Taste, according to the EPA, should have nothing to do with it.

We take for granted the ability to drink fresh, clean water when we turn on the tap. While we hear of U.S. communities with contaminated water — like Flint, Michigan — the percentage of Americans who lack access to clean water is very small at 0.8%. In some countries, that number is as high as 80%. These are the countries with the worst access to drinking water.

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