When tragedy strikes, such as the damage and destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey last August, putting the pieces of life, home and businesses back together can be a full time job. More times than not, it requires effort that lasts for weeks and even months.
For rural farms and ranches, visible damages—downed fences, destroyed crops, lost livestock, and damaged structures— are obvious and easy to spot. But some damages, even dangerous ones, can take time to develop before they become known.
"Most of our visible damage was from high winds, like roof damage on both the barn and the house. We also had some fence areas that were knocked down that we had to patch up," said Don Feagle, who operates a small cow-calf operation and grows a few acres of mostly corn for his cattle in Refugio County in the Upper Coastal Bend of Texas. "But about a week after the storm we began to smell rotten hay stored in a shed, and a couple of days later, mold in the house. Two weeks later a water well test turned up high nitrate counts and salt water had leached into the well."
While most of Feagle's damages could be repaired with a hammer and nails, he said fighting mold in the house and treating his water well was a different story. While decontamination of the well took care of the water problem in "good order," addressing mold in the walls and attic of his home required additional treatments.
Obvious and Hidden Problems
Feagle is just one of many that live near the Texas coast where Hurricane Harvey ravaged homes and businesses, leaving many homeless and causing obvious and hidden problems for others who suffered various levels of damage from the onslaught of high winds and destructive flooding.
Even now, nearly five months after the storm made landfall on the Texas mid-coast, residents are discovering problems they didn't know existed, not the least of which is water well contamination. While public health agencies and Extension agents have encouraged well users to screen their water, many have failed to do so, partially because they have not noted any problems to date.
But without testing, health officials say, well owners cannot know for certain if they have contaminants in the water they use for drinking, cooking and bathing, and that can represent a public health hazard.
"You should not use water from a flooded well for drinking, cooking, making ice, brushing your teeth or even bathing until you are satisfied it is not contaminated," says Dr. Diane Boellstorff, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service water resource specialist in College Station.
Boellstorff said yet another round of free water well screening is now available for well owners in Aransas, Calhoun, Jackson, Matagorda, Refugio, San Patricio and Victoria counties through Texas AgriLife Extension. The testing is being made possible by the Texas Water Well Network.
"Private water wells should be tested annually, and it’s particularly important to have water wells in this area tested since they may have been impacted by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey," she said.
To participate in the free water well screenings program, rural residents should acquire an approved water test kit containing sampling bags and bottles provided by their local AgriLife Extension office. The kit comes with detailed instructions on testing procedures, and those using the kits should closely adhere to instructions to get an adequate water analysis.
For the purposes of this screening, water will be analyzed for common contaminants, including E. coli bacteria, nitrates and salinity.
Boellstorff said the presence of E. coli bacteria in water indicates waste from humans or warm-blooded animals may have contaminated the water. Water contaminated with E. coli bacteria is also more likely to have pathogens that can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea or other health issues.
"Water with nitrate nitrogen at levels of 10 parts per million is considered unsafe for human consumption," said John Smith, AgriLife Extension program specialist in College Station. "These nitrate levels above 10 parts per million can disrupt the ability of blood to carry oxygen throughout the body, resulting in a condition called methemoglobinemia. Infants less than six months of age, the elderly and young livestock are most susceptible."
Smith says salinity as measured by total dissolved solids will also be determined for each sample. He warned that water with high levels may leave deposits and have a salty taste, and using water with high levels of salinity for irrigation may damage soil or plants.
Boellstorff said it is important for those submitting samples to receive the results, learn corrective measures and improve their understanding of private well management.
This round of screening through AgriLife Extension and the Water Well Owners Network represents the third round of testing for residents of the counties listed above. Rural residents who have not tested their wells yet or feel they need to retest should take advantage of this opportunity.
Testing kits must be acquired, and screenings must be completed before the closing deadline. Samples will be collected on a specific date and results will be provided later the same day in most instances. Dates and locations in each county are as follows:
- Jan. 29 from 8:30–10 a.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Aransas County, 892 Airport Road, Rockport. A follow-up meeting will be at the same location Jan. 29 at 6 p.m.
- Jan. 29 from 8:30–10 a.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for San Patricio County, 219 N Vineyard St., Sinton. A follow-up meeting will be Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Aransas County, 892 Airport Road, Rockport.
- Jan. 29 from 8:30–10 a.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Refugio County, 414 B N. Alamo St., Refugio. A follow-up meeting will be held Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Aransas County, 892 Airport Road, Rockport. Another follow-up will be held Jan. 30 at 6 p.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Calhoun County, 186 Henry Baber Way, Suite 1, Port Lavaca.
- Jan. 29 from 8:30–10 a.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Calhoun County, 186 Henry Baber Way, Suite 1, Port Lavaca. A follow-up meeting will be held at the same location Jan. 30 at 6 p.m.
- Jan. 30 from 8:30–10 a.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Jackson County, 411 N. Wells Suite 111, Edna. A follow-up meeting will be held Jan. 30 at 6 p.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Calhoun County, 186 Henry Barber Way, Suite 1, Port Lavaca. Another follow-up will be held Jan. 31 at 6 p.m., in the fourth floor conference room of the Matagorda County Building, 2200 7th St., Bay City.
- Jan. 30 from 8:30–10 a.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Matagorda County, 2200 7th St, Bay City. A follow-up meeting will be held Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. in the fourth floor conference room of the Matagorda County Building at the same address.
- Jan. 30 from 8:30–10 a.m. at the AgriLife Extension office for Victoria County, 528 Waco Circle, Victoria. A follow-up meeting will be held at 6 p.m. the same day at the AgriLife Extension office for Calhoun County, 186 Henry Baber Way, Suite 1, Port Lavaca.