5.4 – Caitlin Norton – Identifying Vulnerable Wells and Improving Drinking Water Safety


Hello everyone, I want to say thank you for hanging around, we’ll get you outta here and get you home. As Steve already said, I’m Caitlin Norton, I’m a research scientist with the New York State Department of Health. I’ll be talking about our CDC safe water community health Safe Watch program. For starters, we had a couple people from the CDC cooperative agreement that we’re a part of. Vermont presented yesterday, the very first day, Jeff, from Madison County in New York presented, New Jersey was here. Little background on the program, it’s a CDC support for drinking water programs at health departments. It’s specifically geared towards addressing problems with private water systems throughout our communities. These could be private wells, cisterns, water storage tanks, or even trucked water. CDC encourages health departments to strengthen and improve their programs by identifying gaps in their current programs, and I’ll be touching on some big gaps in our program. Steve likes to use us as an example on his private well class of a big gap in a state program, but then we’ve also taken actions to address these problems and I’ll be discussing that, as well. New York State’s program and goals and activities involve, we’re the evaluation of non Safe Drinking Water Act, wells and private wells. Just some background on New York State, we regulate any private well that has five or more service connections which is… So we have a lot of very small ground water sources throughout the state, there’s about 8,000 groundwater, public water that’s received from groundwater sources, that services around 5 million people. In working to identify these wells, we also wanted to identify vulnerable wells throughout our state, specifically we’re gonna look at wells in flood planes as well as ones in Karst topography near concentrated animal feeding operations. With this information, we’re looking to develop outreach and education and then obviously our long term goals are improvement of awareness of water safety throughout New York State. For a little bit of background I’m gonna first show you what everyone thinks of when they think of New York: New York City; New York, New York, so nice we named it twice. As someone who works in New York State, they skew all of our data. It’s a huge city, has population of over eight and a half million. The five boroughs, as most people know them, are actually five counties within New York State. And New York City is a beast, they consume about 1 million, or 1 billion gallons of water a day, and their sources actually come from reservoirs that are located upstate about two hours, that’s actually closer to Albany, New York, which is where our central offices than it is to actually New York City. And even though it’s a public water source, as I put on the slide, 95% of their supply is, it’s very efficient, they don’t use a lot of electricity, 95% of it is supplied via gravity. But as a lot of us know what happens around your water sources, it leaves us open to vulnerability. So even though it’s a public source, and it’s not filtered, they actually had to just go through their EPA approval about a year ago. They’re one of the only big cities in the country that don’t have to filter their water. So they’re able to keep it pristine even though it’s two hours away. And I said, coming straight down from the rest of the state. And that’ll bring me to here. This is what I think of when I think of New York State. It’s a very big state we have a lot of natural resources on the west, we have two great lakes, we have Niagara Falls that we share with Canada. The Erie Canal connects the Great Lakes, goes straight across our state, through a lot of Karst topography, and then straight down into the Atlantic Ocean through the center of the state. We have the Finger Lakes, we heard about Skinny Atlas the other day, that’s one of our Finger Lakes. Within that region is a lot of Karst topography, and a lot of agriculture. That area is known best for vineyards. We actually… People don’t think of this, when they think of New York State, but we’re the third largest producer of wine in the country. We’re the third largest producer of milk or dairy products in general, we’re the second largest in the country for apples. We’re actually first in the nation for yogurt and that’s just to name a few. We have a lot of agriculture that you don’t really think of when you think of New York State. Also in New York State we have a bunch of mountain ranges. Up in the northern area we have the Adirondacks. Someone also mentioned in a previous presentation Hoosick Falls, which has PFOA contamination and we’re dealing with that fun project at the moment. South of Albany, in the Catskills, near where New York City gets their water we have the Stewart Air Force base, that has contaminated a town’s water with PFOS. We’ve actually had to re route them to a different water source. Just last week, we were now testing private wells in that area. Also last week, we’re looking to get a community in the same region, it’s about 15 miles away from the Croton reservoir that New York City gets their water from at the town called Kent, New York, they built a small community on an old arsenic mine. We’re trying to get it on the national priority list ’cause they put in filters for their ground water in the 80’s, the worst home has actually a cistern that has water delivered to it, and 30 years later now the systems are failing. So we’re sitting there last week, trying to work to move forward with that program. So I just want you to take away, New York State is a lot more than New York City. And we have a lot of bearing geography, we have… And we have a lot of vulnerabilities to our water sources. And New York state as a whole, it’s almost 20 million people, about 62 counties. So that is 11 million people that don’t live in New York City, that live throughout our state. There are 36 counties in New York State Health Departments. They handle their own direct water sources. The main 21 counties are helped by local district offices. In New York, we’re fortunate. Because we regulate so much of our water, 95% of New Yorkers receive their water from a public water supply. That leaves us with only 5% getting their water from private water source. But because New York has such a large population, that’s still a million people that are getting their water from a private water source. So that leads us to a big problem in our program. Our first step is just trying to find one million private well owners. In New York state, the First step that we decided to take was to look at private well logs and that’s the most logical step. Our Department of Environmental Conservation, started collecting those logs in January of 2000. I put a little snippet from their environmental conservation law right here. It’s not just newly drilled wells, it’s also any construction and reconstruction of wells, the establishment and repair of a well that goes through a well casing or involves the repairs or opening the well casing at all. It should also be noted that these are self reported and we don’t have the staff available at the moment to go back and validate them. So as is known, anything that humans give you isn’t gonna be perfect and we see that a lot. And also, as everyone in this room can attest to, there are wells that existed before January 2000. So we haven’t even been collecting well information for 20 years. My next slide presents two of the different data collection times that we pulled the information from DEC. The gray circle shows the information we collected in 2014. In 2016, we had a wunderkind intern, great at GIS, wonderful and we took a new set of data from DEC. And as you can see, we were given a little over 100,000 wells and the data’s… It’s a good number but it’s still pretty flawed. A lot of the wells weren’t even in New York state. Some of them didn’t provide latitude and longitude and they took a lot of validation just to clean and figure them out. So even if we take this information at face value, a lot of our locations might be flawed. So, again, as I’ve mentioned previously, New York has one million New Yorkers who receive their water from private wells and we were only to get a record of around 100,000. And even if you have 10 people living… It’s hard to believe that 10 people are living in each one of these homes so we know that we have a huge point of population that we’re missing and that’s what I’m gonna speak to about today is how we worked to address these data gaps. And I actually think that’s part of what helped me get my job when I worked under the CDC program. I actually worked in Louisiana for a while, about 10 years and they have a really great record for all of their well records and everything. We had to do a lot of environmental assessments. And I remember on my interview, I said something, “Oh, have you looked at the Assessor’s Office?” And my boss even said, he goes, “Absolutely. Mr. Tax Man knows everything about your property.” And that brings us to the New York State Office of Real Property Tax Services. This says, it’s the data collection for commercial. It should have been the residential cover but the same question is asked for residential properties when they go through a New York state tax assessor process. They have a question asking where they get their water. So we reached out to ORPTS and we were able to receive their information; what properties received their water from private water. And it should be known that they’re not all private wells. Some of them might be surface water, collecting rain, I don’t know, but we’re under the assumption that most of them are going to be private wells. So with this information, you can see we take the DEC number which is about 100,000. And, in 2016, we collected the information from ORPTS and we were able to get over 700,000 well locations throughout the state. And this information is also missing in several counties. Twelve out of the 62 that are in New York, five of those are New York City. But even among the other counties, we still are able to get the addresses for over 700,000 homes that receive private water source. And here’s just a breakdown looking at everything, breakdown at the counties. And now I’ll show you how we’ve been able to use this information to look at those two vulnerable populations I mentioned earlier. So to begin with, we were concerned with properties in flood zones. If you look at the DEC numbers, we were able to find 2500 wells but once we opened up and found the tax information, we actually got the addresses for over 30,000 wells throughout New York state. And a big question is “Is this really representative?” ’cause you’re pulling from two different data sources. Are they really representative of each other? So we used a heat density map of this information. If you see on the left, it’s New York State DEC wells and on the right, is the heat density of the ORPTS information, and they mirror each other pretty perfectly, showing that they really are likely representative. Moving forward, we did the same thing with concentrated animal feeding operations. Again, we were concerned with karst topography. We also mapped outside of karst topography. Once again, with the DEC, the total number located in New York KFO was around 2500. We were able to find over 20,000 once we took the tax information in those addresses. And again, the heat density, they mirror each other. So, we were fairly confident that these are good representations of the wells’ locations throughout the state. On a more fine note, here’s a zoomed in map. I believe this is Orleans, Livingston, Monroe, and there’s another county, it’s a cross section of four different counties and the blue is karst topography, and the little circles are buffer zones surrounding concentrated animal feed operations, and little triangles are private water sources. And again, on the left, we have the DC information, which you can see them spread around, but then you go to the right where you pull the tax information, and there are a lot of wells that we were missing by just using the tax information. So, it’s really helped us close some holes and identify a larger, larger portion of our population. And with that, I just wanna leave you with one success story. So, this was in February 2017. This was about two, three months after we pulled the information from DEC, and pulled it from ORPTS, and there was a manure spill at Cuga County, on a farm. We had an early thaw and the manure actually ran into local creeks. So, as a concern, we pulled our maps and we created buffer zones surrounding the controlled animal feed operation, as well as the lake and the streams under concern. And if you look at the left, those are all… The little black little dots, those are all the locations identified by DEC and on the right, you can see all the locations identified by ORPTS. So, it was kind of nice. Very rarely, you put a program into action and you don’t expect two months later to have to use it, but this is just a great instance where we’ve been able to use our information to better respond to the local communities. Fortunately, in this instance, the lower ground hadn’t thawed yet, so the wells weren’t really impacted. Some people receiving stream water were impacted, and that, we were able to reach out to them as well. And that is my presentation. Alright, well, thank you, Caitlin. It was great. So, the cool thing there, she mentioned at the beginning that I always talk about New York state, not necessarily in a good way, but it’s not… I’m not taking a shot at Caitlin, personally, but New York didn’t pass their law until 2000, so they have no records for wells prior to that, where some states, somebody mentioned today, the 70s, I think Wilson did, in Illinois in 68, and we still only have half of our logs that we think. So, they clearly… Finding those 700,000 well logs is really cool and it’s a great approach that probably many states could take, which is one of the reasons why I wanted Caitlin to come today. If you haven’t looked at that and you’re with a state agency, it may be an opportunity. Also, on the county level, I know Madison County presented on the first day, they pulled utility records. Madison County has about 70,000 residents, so it’s on a different scale than New York state. For us, it was easier to contact a fellow state agency, but utilities might be another way for programs to find private wells. Okay. So, there’s two questions here. One is, any problems with inter agency cooperation? If you noticed, our information was from 2016, in 2017. So, yes, we’ve had… We validated all that wonderful information for DEC, it’s actually on their website, and we’ve been trying to get them to send us over things now. They’re becoming better, but the last two years, they were being audited by the state controllers office, so were low man on their totem pole. We audit our state agencies periodically no matter what. But so, yeah, there’s a definite lag in trying to receive information. ORPTS was was much better. They very open, very quick to share information. Great. Do you have mail addresses also that we can use for outreach and training events? For all those folks, I guess. Yeah, we actually… Part of our CDC agreement was sending out surveys. We’ve just done the private water sources located in flood zones, and we’ve… We’ve reached out to a lot of people. We could… We have the addresses available, depending on what outreach and what training program. You also need to know that a lot of people don’t wanna be contacted. Our response rate was better than we thought it would be, but sill wasn’t great. I was telling someone earlier, I got a response from someone. We sent the survey out and we gave them a pre paid mailing envelope to send it back to us, and I got one back one day and it was really thick, I go open it up and someone had ripped the survey into tiny little pieces, shoved it back in and mailed it back to us. So, it’s anonymous. We don’t know who they are, but their message was clear. They did not wanna be contacted. So, we would be very hesitant to give out… We’re not gonna just freely give out information, but we are looking for further opportunities to do outreach and training events. And I would say probably ARCAP folks or one who would be doing those kind of events. And if we could share resources, that would be a wonderful opportunity. How do you determine the buffer size around the CFAOs? So, it varied depending on… So, when we looked at the incidents around the Sunnyside farm, around the water supplies, it was… I believe it was a quarter mile, straight out from the actual KFO, it was two miles, on that zoomed in buffer sheet that I gave you, we categorized the KFOs for large size or medium. Large had a two mile buffer, and the smaller, medium sized, one set of one mile buffer. There wasn’t really a rhyme or reason, it was just, “Here’s a number and we can show a lot of information through it.” ‘Cause we have heard especially in karst areas, of traveling as far as six miles. I spoke to, again, Madison County has a lot of karst topography, and we kind of shared things about that, but… Do you have any educational efforts planned or going on in these areas now that you know there’s all these additional wells? That’s what we’re doing right now, is we sent out a survey to local health professionals and local health offices, just to see what they felt their people needed, their citizens needed, and then, we’ve also reached out to the people in the flooding zones. We’ve just gotten our responses back and we’re in the process of analyzing that, now we’re also looking to do a second mailing out to the people who are located next to concentrated animal feed operations. So, nothing specific at the moment, but we’re trying to see what people know and how best to go forward in the future. Sure. Is there water quality information captured by your program? No. So, we don’t… Because we’re handling all of New York state, we haven’t had the manpower or the money to go out and sample. We have wanted to work with the lab programs, and there’s been discussions of having them report to us their information, but again, we try to be very cautious of people’s privacy. Again, their private wells, they might be private for a reason. We’re in discussions about it, but we have not personally, and that’s why it’s kinda cool seeing Madison County, who has been able to use the same program, but for sampling and going out and actually visiting wells. So, it’s been a really big blessing to have them, as well as our state program. Sure. Can you speak more about the nature of the manure spill? How did it occur? So, it was a February thaw. It had been frozen. I believe they over… I don’t know specifics of… Those terms. Manure, yeah, manure storage. But I believe the ground had been thawed. We had a really rough winter that year, and I believe they didn’t properly dispose of the store, and there was a thaw and there was runoff that then went straight into the creek, and the map actually showed there’s a fork with two creeks in both sides of it, so it wasn’t in a good location anyways, but it kind of set them up to fail. Sure. And I have a question. Did you do any work to ground truth? You mentioned that not all of those were necessarily wells, but you assume most were, which is what I’m sure is true. Did you do any work to ground truth in any of those areas to see if there were cisterns, or other things besides wells. No. Okay. And that’s been an issue when getting responses back for the surveys, that people will say, “I have a box well. I have spring water.” So, but we do know they’re private source, we’re assuming most are wells, but we have a lot of water throughout New York state, so they could be getting it from anywhere. Great. Well, thank you.

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