At least five Star Valley wells are already contaminated with bacteria and another is on the brink, the town council learned two weeks ago.
The dire contamination predictions made two years ago by a hydrologist seem to be coming true.
Star Valley councilors agreed that the town must safeguard the water it has worked so hard to protect.
While the town incorporated to prevent Payson from sucking its ground water supply dry with the Tower Well, officials say it must now focus on protecting what they have with the Tower Well no longer a concern.
“The quantity is only as good as the quality,” said Bill Davis, Star Valley resident and Water and Sewer Commission member.
The majority of Star Valley residents get their water from private wells and send their waste into a septic system. However, the shallow water table in Star Valley makes it highly vulnerable to contamination from septic systems.
Most wells have never been tested since it is not required.
Wayne VanHorn was one of those residents. For four years, he drank from a well. Then 18 months ago, he decided to test the water at his home and at a rental property.
While the rental property well came up clean, the well outside his home tested positive for coliform bacteria.
VanHorn said he never got sick from drinking the water, but decided to have the well drained and cleaned.
A later test of the well came up clean.
Both tests were completed by a Valley firm and cost VanHorn $65.
While VanHorn is one of the few residents voluntarily testing their well, many more are not.
The town does not know how many residents have tested their wells. Owners of private wells do not have to report to the town the status of their well.
“There is no legal obligation to tell us,” VanHorn said.
When VanHorn discovered his well was tainted, he told neighbors surrounding his property and let the town know.
When the town learns a well is tested, it must tell everyone living around the infected well. However, the town cannot release the information to the public as a whole since it is private property, said Councilor Vern Leis.
VanHorn doesn’t know for sure how his well got e-coli in it, but suspects the source lies in a neighbor’s cesspool, which sits only 50 feet from his well.
VanHorn suspects many more residents could have bacteria in their wells, but has no way of knowing for sure.
“This is definitely an issue and when people do get curious they start asking questions,” VanHorn said. “But a lot of people don’t want to ask the questions because they might not like the answers.”
Besides bacteria, like fecal coliforms, other possible contaminants include pesticides, gasoline, oil and grease. Even a mechanic that uses paint thinner to spray off an engine can pollute a well if they do it enough.
Nearly two years ago, Kristine Uhlman, with the University of Arizona Water Resource Research Center, warned Star Valley its water could one day be severely contaminated with aging septic systems.
The town discussed asking residents if they could test their water and Uhlman said grant money might cover the cost. However, that grant is now held up and the town has never done its own tests. If the grant does not come through, the Water and Sewer Commission asked the town for $15,000 to get it done.
“We don’t know the quality (of wells) and we need to find that out,” Davis said.
The town has spent thousands monitoring the water levels of private wells. The Water and Sewer Commission asked the council recently for another $70,000 to hire a firm to monitor the gauges and interpret the data.
Councilor Gary Coon said the price tag for well monitoring is too high, especially since he does not believe the town has a water shortage based on several water studies.
Coon suggested the town put its money toward developing a sewer system, which the Water and Sewer Commission has worked hard on for the past few years.
So far, an engineering firm has helped plan where a wastewater plant would sit and how the pipes would run through town.
Now the town needs to find a way to fund the project, which will cost millions of dollars.
Until the town has a sewer system, residents need to understand how to protect their wells.
“You need to know what you got and know what your risks are and what you can do about that,” he said.
Uhlman suggests owners test their wells annually.
“More frequent testing is suggested if visual changes in the water quality are noticed, if you smell an unusual odor from the water, if there has been recent maintenance of your well or pump, if you observe spotting on laundry, or if unexplained health changes occur,” according to the Arizona Well Owners Help Web site. Residents can help keep wells clean by following a few simple guidelines, according to the Arizona Well Owners Guide to Water Supply. The first is to keep dirt and debris clear of the well. Install a well cap, which covers the opening so contaminants do not enter. If an animal uses the area as a bathroom, Uhlman said waste could eventually seep into the water supply. Clear the area around the apron to prevent this. Pesticides, solvents, oil and grease should be stored properly.