New well water quality data provides insight into drinking water on farms in Maryland

March 8, 2023
By Laura Wormuth

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), approximately 13 percent of Marylanders get their water from individual wells. Residents on well water may not know exactly what’s in the water they’re drinking, and they are given little guidance on maintenance as they alone are responsible for the quality of their wells. In response, a new initiative from the University of Maryland Extension (UME) aims to assess water quality on farms, improve recommendations, and provide better regional education for protecting drinking water supplies.

Supported by a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Principal Investigator Andrew Lazur, UME water quality specialist, collected water samples from 75 different farm wells across the state to analyze for various contamination parameters.

“Maryland doesn’t have a lot of data on well water quality and collecting more data helps to point at what, if any, issues exist,” said Lazur, who teamed up with Extension agricultural agents to work with farms across Maryland. “I was really interested in working with the farming community because, essentially, 100 percent of them are on well water.”

Partnering with Co-Principal Investigator Rachel Rosenberg Goldstein, director of the UMD School of Public Health Water Quality, Outreach, and Wellness (WOW) Lab, and Virginia Tech, samples were analyzed for quantities of coliform bacteria, E. coli, nitrates, and the presence of metals like copper, arsenic, and lead, amongst other parameters.

Individual reports were provided to participating farms, with specific recommendations from Lazur for treating any potential issues. Overall, 39 percent of the wells tested positive for the presence of coliform bacteria, and 10 percent had evidence of E. coli, both indicators of animal waste contamination.

“That’s not uncommon,” he said. “The well cap could be cracked, or the casing could have a hole in it where bugs can get in; and bugs can die and fall into the water causing the bacteria. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the septic, or the neighbor's septic, is contaminating the well, but it is an indicator of a potential problem.”

Approximately 30 percent of the tested wells had sodium levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) drinking water advisory levels, 5 percent had high levels of nitrates, and three wells indicated the presence of arsenic.

“Most of these things are easy fixes. Sodium can be caused by water softeners used to reduce calcium and scaling in that water, but a homeowner can put in a reverse osmosis filter under their sink for drinking and cooking. If there’s arsenic, there’s a filter for that,” Lazur said. “There’s a filter for everything.”

Although there’s a filter available to fix most water quality issues, farm owners cannot typically detect water quality issues like the presence of bacteria or heavy metals by taste or even odor, and Lazur doesn’t recommend indiscriminately installing filters on the water systems. Farmers should have their water tested regularly to determine any potential contaminants and solutions, he said. “It costs money to install these filters and if they’re not maintained properly, they could do more harm. We’re very specific about what we recommend.”

Homes using well water systems should have a full battery of the 12 water quality parameters when the well is dug, and every five years or so after that, said Lazur. He also suggests an annual water test to look for the presence of bacteria and nitrate, the main indicators of animal waste contamination. 

Farmers and homeowners are encouraged to use a certified state lab for their well water analysis as well. “Certified means that the MDE has inspected the lab and verified they are using an EPA, or similar quality, method. Samples are handled properly and homeowners can count on the results being accurate,” Lazur said.

As a final step in the farm water analyses, 60 samples will be chosen for pesticide screenings. While this lab work will not quantify the amount of common pesticides in the water, it will determine whether those contaminants are present and if more research needs to be conducted.

“I hope people take drinking water quality seriously,” he said. “This work is rewarding because you’re helping somebody’s health.”

With the new baseline data generated through this research, Lazur and the Extension team, including Alan Leslie (Charles County), Kelly Nichols (Montgomery County), Shannon Dill (Talbot County), Sarah Hirsh (Somerset County), Ben Beale (St. Mary’s County), Andrew Kness (Harford County), and Jeff Semler (Washington County), will disseminate water quality information and further recommendations throughout the state, for maintaining safe, healthy drinking water supplies on farms and in rural communities.

“You are what you drink, just as much as you are what you eat,” said Lazur. “Our bodies are 60 percent water so it only makes good sense to put in good quality water.”

To learn more about ensuring safe drinking water, Marylanders can participate in an upcoming Farm Wells and Drinking Water Quality webinar at noon on March 16, 2023. Register at