URI students visit farmers markets to educate homeowners about how to protect drinking water

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Jordanne Feldman (left) and Nathan Brown pose at their well water education booth at a local farmers market in September. Photo courtesy of Alyson McCann

KINGSTON, R.I.—September 19, 2017 – Many Rhode Islanders visiting farmers markets this year have likely been engaged in conversation by Jordanne Feldman and Nathan Brown. The University of Rhode Island students have spent the summer traveling to farmers markets and other venues to educate private well owners about how to reduce the chance of their drinking water becoming contaminated.

“We talk to them about their well water, how they can test it, and how to improve the quality of their drinking water,” said Brown, a senior environmental economics major from Westerly. “It’s really a quality of life issue. Some people have lived in their house for decades and have never tested their water before.”

While Brown and Feldman say that the quality of Rhode Island well water is generally good, there are numerous factors that could affect it, from a neighbor dumping used motor oil on the ground to over-enthusiastic pesticide use and road salt. And it is the responsibility of the homeowner to monitor and test private wells.

According to Brown, most people don’t know what to test for, how often to test, or what the test results mean. So the reaction to the educational materials they pass out at the farmers markets has been tremendously positive.

“The people seem very happy that we’re there,” said Feldman, a native of New Hartford, N.Y., studying geology. “For most of them, it’s something they never really think about. They’re surprised that they’re supposed to test their water. Those with young kids have been especially happy to hear from us.”

The students tell homeowners that they should test their well water every year for coliform bacteria, nitrate, nitrite, chloride and turbidity, while it should also be tested for fluoride, pH, iron, lead, manganese and sulfite every 3 to 5 years. Well water should be tested every 5 to 10 years for volatile organic compounds and MtBE, a compound found in gasoline.

At the farmers markets, Brown and Feldman display a model that shows the movement of groundwater that generates a great deal of interest. They also offer a variety of information about how to keep a well safe and how to test the water, all from URI’s award-winning Home*A*Syst Program.

The students have also given out water testing kits to interested residents, and they even offer to drive the water samples to the state health lab in Providence.

“That’s been a factor for why some people haven’t tested their water – it’s a hassle to drive the water samples to Providence,” explained Brown. “It can be stressful for some people to get to Providence. So now we tell them when we’ll be back to the farmers markets to pick up the kits, and we deliver them to Providence ourselves. It has really increased the number of people who have tested their water this year.”

Both students are participating in the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 21st year, it is based at URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. Students are paired with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations. Funding for the students’ work is supported by URI Cooperative Extension and the Rhode Island Department of Health.

The students say the experience has been beneficial to their future career plans and tremendously rewarding.

“I have absolutely loved every minute of it,” said Feldman, who plans a career helping improve water quality in developing nations. “It’s been so much fun and so interesting. It’s been great to see how much people appreciate us being there and the information we’re giving out. We’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

“It’s been a really cool way to interact with people who I wouldn’t normally interact with,” added Brown. “And it’s been nice to talk to people about a subject that’s important to them.”