In August 2021, RCAP Solutions received a referral from Maine Center for Disease Control for assistance regarding a confirmed cluster of illness in the rural western Maine town of Temple. Eight people had been hospitalized with intestinal illness associated with drinking water from a private spring, to include Jo, an 80-year old woman whose home has been directly supplied by the spring for over 40 years. At least a dozen other families rely on water from the spring collected at a roadside tap.
Upon meeting with Jo, RCAP learned that a sample collected at her house tested positive for total coliform bacteria, and specifically for E. coli. Jo had been stricken on her 80th birthday and endured eight days of illness. Her stool tested presumptive positive for Campylobacter bacteria.
Jo and her partner had built their home and sanctuary on a quiet dirt road in Temple over 40 years ago. It had always been gravity-fed water by a supply line from the spring on a neighboring property, to which they had deeded access. Jo loved the sweet, clear water, despite the occasional salamander that plopped out of her tap. To her knowledge, the water had never been tested prior to this incident. Now, a single woman, on a fixed income, Jo was concerned about the safety of her home’s water supply – as well as for the safety of other people of the community she knew relied on the spring. She knew there were additional unreported illnesses among the users who were reluctant to come forward, fearing they would lose access to the spring’s roadside tap.
Temple’s Town Clerk joined RCAP and Jo on an inspection of the spring, located up a wooded trail across the road from Jo’s home. The concrete casing spring box set low in a depression, on a sloped grade. Around the spring box, the depression collected rain run-off and other organic debris. The spring box lid was not secure, which allowed contaminated water inflow and the casing did not appear to go deep enough into the ground to prevent surface water seepage infiltration. Looking inside the spring box, one could see the two lines that gravity feed Jo’s home and the roadside tap. Debris floated on the surface of the water, and roots and vegetation had grown in under the cover and penetrated the casing. There was no protection of the water from natural sources of bacteria or harmful organisms. The water was not safe to drink.
THE APPROACH & SOLUTION
RCAP worked with the Maine Drinking Water Program to obtain appropriate signage and the Town Clerk posted the roadside tap, indicating the water was non-potable and should be boiled for at least 5 minutes before consuming. Efforts were underway to locate the elderly out-of-town owner of the property to encourage the removal of the roadside tap.
At Jo’s home, it was strictly bottled water for drinking, and boiling water for other uses, such as dish washing. Jo decided she needed a reliably safe source of drinking water for her home. RCAP discussed with Jo options that included installing filtration and disinfection treatment of the spring water or obtaining a new drinking water source. Jo decided to have a well drilled on her own property. RCAP provided assistance in collecting and evaluating proposals to drill the well and exploring funding opportunities available to Jo to complete its installation and directly supply her house. At the height of summer, following two years of drought and Covid-related shortages, well drillers were in high demand and under significant backlog.
The well was finally drilled November 10, 2021. After the initial flushing and disinfecting by the well driller, RCAP conducted an on-site assessment of the well and collected water quality samples from Jo’s kitchen. The results showed elevated coliform bacteria. The water system would need to be disinfected again, with particular attention to the internal plumbing, which likely had some stubborn contamination after over 40 years of using the spring. After the second disinfection, conducted by a local plumber, the bacteria count was down from 276 colonies to 28 colonies, but the system was still not clean. RCAP noted that the pH of the water was slightly high and was likely interfering with the disinfecting chemical, and recommended an additional disinfection using a pH-buffered product.
It took a village, but on December 20th, RCAP supervised a successful buffered disinfection of the well and plumbing. This effort was made possible due to generous contributions of time and material by a local plumbing firm, a supply company, and a water treatment contractor. After a final confirmation test indicated the water source and system was free of bacteria, Jo was finally able to drink from her kitchen faucet with confidence.
RCAP issued a comprehensive assessment report to Jo, complete with recommended monitoring of the water quality and an initiated well head protection plan.
After over 40 years of drinking from a spring with unreliable water quality, and at least once being severely ill due to it, this 80-year old resident of rural Temple, Maine continues to live independently in her wooded retreat, able to drink from her kitchen tap confident that her water is safe.
At this time, the roadside tap remains “posted”. The owner has not elected to shut it down. RCAP continues to work with Temple town officials, encouraging them to stay diligent in educating and warning residents of the risks of using water from unreliable sources, and suggesting that they consider providing an alternate safe drinking water supply for public use.
RCAP continues to support rural communities and private well owners with training on using and maintaining private water sources, on-site private well and spring assessments and source water testing.