HEARTLAND FLOOD: Dozens of Nebraska wells contaminated

FREMONT, Neb. (WOWT) -- Dozens of wells throughout Nebraska are contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

Jan Nicola had to dig and find her well head before she could even begin treating it to make it safe for drinking. (Leigh Waldman / WOWT)

Private drinking wells were inundated with water filled with contaminants, like E. coli. Now people in areas like Fremont are having to take action to make the water safe again.

Jan Nicola just returned to her riverfront home on June 7 after staying with her sister in Bennington.

"The whole ground was covered with 3 to 4 feet of sand," Nicola said. "When we first started digging, well I was in the wrong area. I was close. I had to remember the boundaries of where I mowed around the well."

Once the well was uncovered, Nicola took a water sample. The testing only took 24 hours to come back with a result.

"They tested it and said within 48 hours, it was probably contaminated," Nicola said, "and mine was because it was all submerged under river water for several days."

The EPA and Department of Health and Human Services assisted public health departments in testing 280 wells; they found 15% to 30% of them were contaminated.

"So then, I picked up a well treatment kit thing at Meynard's and treated it myself," Nicola said.

The kit cost about $20 and contained several packets to dump directly into the well.

Nicola's well was sealed tightly, so the sand around it didn't get in. But for many wells, a compressor will need to be brought in to clear silt and debris before a strong chlorine chemical is poured into the wellhead to purify the water.

"And then we had to run regular hose-water down there," she said, "and then I had to run all of the faucets. Then it smelled like bleach water."

On her second round of testing, Nicola's water came back clean. After being displaced for 3 months, she was finally able to come home to fresh water.

"Wonderful. I get to sleep in my own bed!" she said.

The need for continual well testing doesn't end now that some flood waters are gone. Terra Uhing, executive director of Three Rivers Public Health said it's necessary every year.

"We need to ensure that there's appropriate information and education out there so folks can do that water testing either once a year or once every other year," Uhing said.

Moving forward, Uhing said the public health department could start offering yearly testing.

"Water is essential," Uhing said. "Everybody needs it and we need to make sure that it's safe before consuming it."

DHHS drinking water program has plans in place to continue to support those whose private wells were contaminated. Representative Leah Bucco-White said cloudiness or a change in taste or smell can mean possible contamination.

Further well-water testing can be done through local health departments or private laboratories.