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On April 10, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Private Well Safety Act (HB 11/SB 483) before it wrapped up the 2023 legislative session at midnight (Happy Sine Die!).

With its passage, the Private Well Safety Act will provide roughly 830,000 Marylanders who get their drinking water from a private well with the necessary resources and information to monitor and safeguard their household drinking water and ultimately protect their and their family’s health.

While some progress has been made, Maryland has lagged far behind most states in private well water protections. In a 2020 report released by the Center, researchers found that Maryland ranked among the five states with the fewest protections.

Aside from basic construction and safety requirements and an initial water quality test when a new well is drilled, families that rely on private well water in Maryland are entirely responsible for the safety of their drinking water. Many can’t afford to or don’t know that they need to regularly test their water for harmful contaminants. These contaminants can be dangerous to health, and some are colorless, tasteless, and odorless.

In 2020, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore, “cancer patients were more likely to live in homes supplied by private well water compared to individuals in the general regional population.”

Generally speaking, the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland is rural and zoned heavily for agricultural use, so it’s home to hundreds of facilities that house and feed chickens and hens in crowded conditions.Our 2020 report posits a source for the increased cancer risk associated with private well water: nitrate, which is an undetectable contaminant often found in groundwater from the excess application of manure and fertilizer to fields.

In two Lower Eastern Shore counties, one in 25 wells had nitrate levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safe drinking water threshold, our report found. Nitrate levels above this threshold are known to cause blue baby syndrome, a condition fatal to infants through oxygen deprivation. Research also links nitrate in drinking water at levels well below EPA’s threshold with an increased risk of cancer, particularly colon cancer, as well as pregnancy complications and thyroid disease. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Chesapeake Bay Program show that nitrate levels have steadily increased in Lower Eastern Shore waterways.

Whether it is nitrates or another drinking water contaminant, the Private Well Safety Act is a critical first step to ensuring that all Marylanders have a right to safe, clean drinking water. As amended and passed, the Private Well Safety Act will:

  1. Require the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to adopt regulations with county-specific contaminants of concern and private well testing recommendations (explicitly covers manganese, radon, arsenic, mercury, and other volatile organic compounds and must be completed by December 2026);
  1. Require MDE to create an accessible online database of well water quality test results, subject to funding;
  1. Encourage county health departments and state-certified laboratories to periodically upload private well water quality test results to the database;
  1. Require water quality testing during the sale of a home with a well (test must also be uploaded to database); and
  1. Require MDE to study the long-term funding options and identify funding sources for a private well grant fund, as well as monitoring and analysis of groundwater resources in the state. 

In future years, the Maryland General Assembly should work with MDE to establish a private well grant fund. This fund would help educate Marylanders on the importance of annual testing and provide funds for lower-wealth families to test and remediate their well water if unsafe levels of contaminants are found.

These common-sense protections will make a positive difference for private well owners and users in Maryland for years to come.