Groundwater contamination is a growing problem in Connecticut, and Michael Dietz, director of the Connecticut Water Resources Institute at UConn, is working on several fronts to address it.
A teacher at UConn Extension in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Dietz has led major initiatives to understand and address this critical issue in Connecticut and regionally with help from UConn colleagues and partners across the state.
One such initiative — a small program offering reduced-cost well water testing to homeowners across the state — received a $350,000 award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will allow Dietz to expand the reach of the program in rural communities. Dietz hopes to make the service available to 1,000 homeowners over the two years of the grant, a significant increase from the 25 homeowners served by the program from 2021.
“There are over 300,000 wells in the state, and we want to help those homeowners get tested so they know if their water is safe to drink,” says Dietz, who is PI on the project.
The only time testing is currently required in Connecticut is when a well is installed. Dietz thinks more frequent testing is needed due to increased levels of contamination in soil and water. Road salt is a major source of contamination, he says, and the rate at which it is applied to roads has steadily increased over the past 40 years.
Two other elements – arsenic and uranium – have also been found in groundwater in Connecticut. Uranium, which occurs naturally, can cause cancer and other health problems in high concentrations. A recent US Geological Survey study determined that some well water samples exceeded the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels for these elements.
There are over 300,000 wells in the state, and we want to help those homeowners get tested so they know if their water is safe to drink. — Michael Deitz, director of the Connecticut Water Resources Institute
Recent research by Dietz’s co-PIs on the project, Professor Gary Robbins of UConn and Professor Meredith Metcalf of Eastern Connecticut State University, identified the historic use of arsenate pesticides from lead in apple orchards as a possible source of arsenic. Robbins has been researching and working with Connecticut communities on groundwater issues for over 35 years.
Reducing road salt use is a primary water quality concern that Dietz and Robbins have been working on for years. De-icing salts used on roads, sidewalks, parking lots and driveways in the winter to prevent slips and falls contain sodium chloride and other chemicals that trickle down or slowly soak into surfaces, eventually cutting their way through soil and water and affecting vegetation. , aquatic life and human health when it reaches drinking water wells.
As part of an effort led by the Connecticut Training and Technical Assistance Center (T2 Center) at UConn, Dietz served on a committee with several state and local agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Department of Public Affairs South Windsor Health (DPH) and Public Works officials are looking at ways to reduce road salt use and the damage that result in the environment while maintaining the safety of pedestrians and drivers. Modeled after a New Hampshire program, the “Green Snow Pro” program is now offered statewide by the T2 Center.
After the program was tested at UConn with facility staff, Dietz used monitoring data to confirm that salt reductions improved water quality and saved money. In 2022, a bill, SB 240: An Act Concerning the Use of Sodium Chloride to Mitigate Snow and Ice Accumulations, was passed by the state legislature to mitigate the effects of sodium chloride contamination in private wells and public drinking water supplies. The legislation provided funding to the T2 Center to expand trainings to private snow contractors in the state. Dietz noted that progress on the issue could not have happened without the work of partners from many agencies and organizations.
The USDA-funded well-testing program, The Rural Private Well Testing and Citizen Education Program, grew out of this work and was modeled after a similar well-testing program in Virginia. This program consists of a series of educational workshops, where owners have the opportunity to register for well testing at a later date. The program subsidizes the cost of well testing, which can be substantial.
Dietz is hosting workshops in Connecticut this winter with the goal of enabling 1,000 homeowners in 13 rural communities to have their well water tested for free. The towns targeted for testing are in rural northwest and northeast Connecticut, though Dietz hopes to expand to other suburban towns whose residents are mostly served by private wells. While 1,000 homes is a fraction of residential wells in Connecticut, Dietz says that’s a start.
The program complements a private well program at DPH, which provides information on groundwater contamination but lacks personnel to test well water. Dietz says he and Robbins have worked with DPH for several years. When the grant opportunity came up, it seemed like the perfect way to expand that effort, Dietz says.
“This is a very solid extension project that aims to help people,” he says. “That’s what the extension does. It is our reason for being.