Coliform bacteria are one of the most common water contamination problems in private water systems in Vermont and throughout the U.S. Coliform is a family of bacteria common in soil, plants, and intestinal tracts of humans and animals. The presence of these bacteria in drinking water is used to determine if it may be unsafe to drink.
A recent study of the results from testing for bacteria in drinking water in Vermont showed:
- About two out of three springs had total coliform present.
- One in three wells had total coliform present.
- One in 10 families with a spring is drinking water contaminated with E. coli bacteria that can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal diseases.
Almost all surface waters contain some coliform bacteria. Groundwater in a properly constructed and maintained well or spring should be free of coliform bacteria.
If these bacteria are found in a well or spring, it could indicate that surface water has somehow leaked into the well or spring. This could happen from:
- Rain runoff or snowmelt making its way into the well or spring through cracks in ledge outcroppings, gravelly soil or sandy soil
- Pooling of rain runoff or snowmelt around the well or spring casing if the well or spring cover is not airtight, or if the pipe leading to the house is not properly installed
- Poor construction or cracks in the well or spring casing
Other sources of contamination are from:
- Insects, snakes, mice or other animals getting into the well or spring
- Dead-end pipes in household plumbing
- Improperly maintained treatment devices
The coliform family includes fecal coliform, such as E. coli. Fecal coliform from human or animal waste in your drinking water can cause stomachaches, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal diseases.
Total coliform cover other types of coliform in drinking water. They will not necessarily make you sick, but since these organisms have found a way into your water system, other disease-causing organisms could enter as well.
In some cases, household residents can become immune to the bacteria in their drinking water if they’ve been drinking it for long periods of time. In this case, visitors to the home that are not immune may become sick after drinking the water.
The Health Department recommends testing your private water source for total coliform every year. Test kits for total coliform and E. coli cost $14 and are available through the Health Department Laboratory by calling 802-338-4724.
The “present/absent” bacteria test kit, shows whether there are or are not total coliform and E. coli in your water. The test has two steps:
- The sample is checked for total coliform, which tells you if coliform bacteria have gotten into the well or spring. The result will tell you if the bacteria have been detected or not detected.
- If the test detects total coliform bacteria, the same sample is checked again to find out if the bacteria are from animal waste. The result specifically states whether E. coli bacteria are detected or are not detected.
If you have bacteria in your water, you should verify the results with a second bacteria test. You can purchase the enumerated bacteria test kit for $15, which will give you the number of bacteria in the sample. This will help you find out how severe the problem is.
Monitoring and Timing of Bacteria Testing
If bacteria are detected in your water and you can’t find an obvious source of contamination, you’ll need to take a series of tests to monitor changes in the well water over time. Order the enumerated bacteria test kit for this type of monitoring. We recommend testing the water before and after a heavy rain event to see if there is a change in the number of bacteria in your water. If the numbers increase after a rain event, surface water may have gotten into your well.
If you think the contamination is from a septic system or animal manure, we recommend that you have the water tested for nitrate and chloride. These are part of our recommended chemical test kit for homeowners.
There is no wrong time of year to test your water for bacteria, but time of year and weather conditions can affect the occurrence and number of coliform bacteria in wells. Coliform bacteria like to live near the surface of the earth and prefer warm temperatures. This means that the highest number of bacteria will be found when testing your well shortly after several weeks of rainy weather, and the fewest bacteria will be found when testing during dry, cold conditions in the winter. Be aware of these weather and season variations when testing your water supply for bacteria.
If your drinking water is contaminated with bacteria:
- Boil for one minute all water to be used for drinking, cooking, washing fruits and vegetable, brushing teeth, and making ice cubes, baby formula and concentrated juices.
- Let dishes dry thoroughly before use.
- Bathing should pose no risk, but make sure children do not drink water by sucking on washcloths or sponges.
Follow these precautions until follow-up test results show absence of bacterial contamination. Note: Licensed restaurants and other facilities have additional requirements.
If you have coliform bacteria in your water, we recommend that you:
- Visually inspect your system and make any repairs. Look for leaks, unmortered joints, loose caps, ripped vent screens in the well cap, etc. Try to find any known sources of bacterial contamination in the area surrounding the well.
- Shock chlorinate your well to sanitize the system once repairs have been made.
- Retest your water one to two days after the smell of chlorine is gone.
If problems continue:
- Consider getting the well professionally inspected by a well contractor. They can mechanically clean the inside of the well or run a camera down to find cracks or other issues. This is generally recommended every ten years.
- Consider permanent treatment for your water supply if you’ve shock chlorinated several times and a well inspection does not find the cause of the contamination. Make sure any treatment device is NSF certified.
Permanent treatment options include:
- A chlorinator, which injects exact amounts of chlorine into your plumbing system when the water is being pumped to the home
- Ultraviolet (UV) light treatment that meets NSF Standard 55
- A filter that meets NSF Standard 53 and is 1 micron (absolute), which is approved to remove bacteria that cause sickness
Vermont Wastewater and Potable Water Revolving Loan Fund
This program, also known as the On-site Loan Program, is available to certain Vermont residents for the repair or replacement of failed water supply and on-site wastewater systems. The On-site Loan Program is funded and administered by the Agency of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation with loan underwriting and servicing provided by the Opportunities Credit Union in Winooski. Your drinking water supply has to be a failed system and you must be living in the residence on a year-round basis to be eligible. The family income cannot exceed 200% of the state median household income. For more information about eligibility and how to apply, call 802-461-6051 or visit the website.
The NeighborWorks Alliance of Vermont
The NeighborWorks Alliance is made up of five local organizations offering full affordable housing services for income-eligible individuals. You may qualify for help from this program if you need money to install a water treatment system, drill a well, or repair or replace your septic system. For more information on eligibility, contact the local NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center in your region.
Single Family Housing Repair Loans and Grants
This program offers loans and grants to exiting homeowners for well construction, repair and sealing. It's administered by the Rural Development office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program is for low-income families who live in a rural area or a community with a population of 25,000 or less. The family income cannot exceed 50% of the median county income. Individuals who are 62 years of age or older may qualify for a grant or a combination of a loan and grant. Younger applicants are eligible only for loans.
Burlington, South Burlington, Essex Junction, Winooski and parts of Colchester are ineligible for the program because of population. Even if your property is in an eligible area, your eligibility is still subject to income limits. For more information or to find out if your property is in an eligible area, call 802-828-6022 or visit the website.