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Amid fears of arsenic in private water wells, Texas A&M is offering low-cost tests in Ector and Midland counties

Ector and Midland county residents who receive their water from private wells can have their supply tested for $15 next week by Texas A&M.
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
Ector and Midland county residents who receive their water from private wells can have their supply tested for $15 next week by Texas A&M.

ODESSA — Texas A&M is offering residents of Midland and Ector counties a low-cost test for their well water, screening for harmful — and in some cases, deadly — contaminants.

Scientists will look for three different pollutants, including arsenic, E. Coli and nitrate. They also will test salt levels.

It’s the institution’s latest attempt to encourage the estimated 13,500 private water well owners in both counties who aren’t subject to regulation to test and treat their water regularly. In particular, experts hope to inform residents about arsenic, a carcinogen they said has been found in large concentrations in West Texas water wells.

“It’s a protection thing,” said Joel Pigg, a program specialist coordinating the logistics of such events across Texas. “It’s health and safety.”

Texas A&M is offering the tests later this month in partnership with the Texas Well Owner Network, a statewide group that promotes well water testing. Participants will be charged $15 for the tests, with results ready in 24 hours.

It’s been three years since the groups offered the low-cost tests in Ector and Midland counties, said Brady Evans, the AgriLife Extension Service agent overseeing both counties. Pecos and Fort Stockton, two cities west of Ector County, held a similar event in October 2023. The results were shared directly with the landowners along with information about what to do if the water is contaminated.

“If this is something we need to do annually, we will. Every two years is fine, too,” Evans said. “Several of our citizens request water quality programming.”

Clean and reliable water is a continuing challenge for rural Texans, particularly those in small towns and served by wells rather than large municipal agencies. For example, a Hispanic community in Midland County outside the city limits this year discovered the water had been contaminated with multiple chemicals for years, including arsenic, but they never received a notice.

Texas regulators require private water managers supplying water to more than 15 households to submit annual compliance reports about the quality of their drinking water, in part to determine if the water contains traces of the same contaminants. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality then determines whether the water is safe for consumption. The agency does not regulate wells supplying water to a single household.

Arsenic is naturally occurring in groundwater. Generally, the deeper the well, the greater the amount of the chemical in the water, said Daniel Saftner, a researcher and hydrogeologist at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada.

Ingesting arsenic can lead to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes and cancer. Scientists have also said that arsenic can have chronic effects on the human body, lasting four decades.

Individuals and small well operators face several barriers to testing, including price. Individual testing can cost up to $400, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

“If arsenic shows up in a sample, well owners can make an informed decision on how to handle its presence,” Saftner said. “Public water supplies can make more informed decisions because they are regularly tested.”

Statewide, officials believe, 1.8 million wells have been drilled for water since 1900. About 500,000 of those were drilled after 2002, the last time the Texas Water Development Board updated how it recorded wells. It's unclear how many active water wells there are.

It’s unclear how many Texans use or consume their water from a private well.

In areas outside city limits, where private wells are common, landowners and households not hooked up to a municipal water line may be under the jurisdiction of a groundwater conservation district. There are 98 groundwater districts in Texas, about half of which offer some sort of water quality testing to interested well owners. However, groundwater districts are not water providers and privately owned wells are not subject to any water quality testing mandate.

The groundwater district nearest to Midland and Ector counties is the Permian Basin Underground Water District. It only serves Howard and Martin counties.

For more information about how to get your water tested visit the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension offices.

Disclosure: Texas A&M AgriLife has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.