Keeping all water safe

A proposed ordinance on the inspection of private wells needs more refinement before it will be considered, according to the Webster County Board of Supervisors.

The ordinance would have provided for the inspection of private wells and cisterns, as well as testing of drinking water from those wells, before the transfer of any property in Webster County.

Jack Bradley, Webster County Environmental Health Department, who proposed the ordinance, gave some specific examples of why he feels it is necessary.

“This ordinance was precipitated by some water samples I took in the summer of 2012. Four out of six samples at the time of transfer were unsafe. A couple of those had coliform, which could include E. coli,” Bradley said.

When he looked at the wells, Bradley said he found four of the six were open wells, with gaps through which animals like raccoons, groundhogs or snakes could fall into the well.

“When a buyer buys a property, they deserve the right to know and to have safe water when they transfer that title,” he said. “A lot of people who buy property just assume their water is safe.”

Bradley can test a water sample for quality, but he can’t do well inspections, he said.

Rick Peters, of Coldwell Banker, spoke on behalf of the Fort Dodge Board of Realtors. He said the ordinance as written did not properly respect the relationship between real estate agents, buyers and sellers.

“We have never had a requirement that a Realtor become party to a contract. That’s what this ordinance is requiring, because it says if it is not complied with, a Realtor or agent can be held accountable,” Peters said. “We’re not party to the real estate sales contract, we’re merely providing negotiations to the transaction, and helping the buyer and seller come together and execute a contract.”

Another thing, he said, which he believes “is drastically wrong with this ordinance, is it goes beyond health and goes to safety. I don’t believe the health department is in charge of safety,” he said.

Supervisor Mark Campbell agreed.

“I’m all for doing anything and everything – and I assure you the Board of Health is for doing anything and everything – to ensure public health. Now public safety is a different thing. We can’t cross that line to safety from public health,” Campbell said.

Campbell and Supervisor Clark Fletcher are both on the Public Health board, he said.

Peters said any needed inspections should be negotiated between the buyers and sellers. He also said if this is really a big issue, it should be a statewide law, not a county law.

Supervisor Merrill Leffler said Peters raised good points. Instead of protecting the public, he said the proposed ordinance would “open up a whole other can of worms.”

“I envision under this language you could get to a point where every acreage that’s sold, you have to put a new well in it,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s where we want to go at all.

“My main problem is it’s a government overstepping what I think they should be.”

“We need to also think about personal responsibility here. If I’m buying a property, I have the responsibility,” Campbell said.

Supervisor Keith Dencklau said buyers are made aware of well issues.

“If you’re buying an acreage, the Realtors tell people that – hire a qualified well inspector to go out and have a look,” Dencklau said. “I think the Realtors have been doing a very good job now of watching the wells when they get sold. I’ve been a Realtor for 35 years, and I’ve never sold an acreage where the well wasn’t inspected.”

The board decided to take no action on the proposal, to leave more time to work out the issues.

“We ask that this be re-evaluated by the Board of Health and the Realtors, and see if there is common ground,” said Fletcher.

Bradley said he appreciated the chance to bring the issue up, so that more people will hear about it.

“I think the buyer needs to be aware of the quality of the well. That’s not always happening,” he said after the meeting.

“These are bad wells; these are open wells. Most of the wells in the county are 5-, 6-inch diameter steel wells, that come above the ground with a proper cap. These I’m talking about are down in a pit, probably were bored in the ’40s and ’50s, and so they’re older wells.”

There aren’t very many of these wells around, he said.

Bradley said there is currently no law requiring well inspections upon transfer of property.

He does a water sample test on these properties “only upon request by, usually it’s a financial institution.”

“This is a good starting point,” he said. “It’s a conversation between the public and the Realtors.”