Researchers Work With Gaston County to Protect Well Water Supplies

UNC Charlotte and Gaston County are working together on an effort to protect and monitor a key portion of the county’s water supply. Funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the “Healthy Wells” program will establish a public digital database of the county’s wells and promote the protection of private well water supplies.

The Gaston County Department of Health & Human Services will receive nearly $670,000 over the course of the 5-year grant. Faculty and students from the UNC Charlotte departments of Public Health Sciences and Geography & Earth Sciences and the Center for Applied Geographic Information Science will work closely with DHHS environmental health specialists to carry out the core functions of the Healthy Wells program.

Threats to groundwater in Gaston County include the potential leaching of water from two coal ash ponds in Mt. Holly and Belmont, naturally occurring arsenic in western portions of the county, pollution from industry on the Catawba River, the potential for decreased rainfall that threatens groundwater volume and older wells reaching the end of their functional capacity.

The extent to which these factors have compromised the groundwater is unknown. Gary Silverman, Public Health Sciences professor and lead investigator on the project, said answers are on the way.

“This work will provide a mechanism for systematically evaluating groundwater quality and taking progressive action to guard against future pollution,” he said. “At the end of this project, we will have a good handle on groundwater quality throughout the country, and a computerized system in place facilitating future assessment and action.”

The grant will allow the county to use the latest technology to track and monitor local wells, said Chris Dobbins, Gaston DHHS Director. “It is an amazing opportunity for Gaston to make major improvements to our current system without any additional costs to local well owners or taxpayers,” Dobbins said. “We are thrilled to take our agency’s Wells Program to the next level.”

With the additional data and updated records, local environmental health specialists will more easily identify trends, locate sources of contamination and provide timely alerts to well owners impacted by potential threats. The program will also help the county develop information for pre-service and continuing education for environmental health specialists and, more broadly, is expected to provide research data that can be used by the environmental health profession.

“This initiative related to well water quality has the potential to increase public health awareness among residents of Gaston County,” said co-investigator Eric Delmelle, assistant professor in the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences.

The program draws on geospatial expertise found in the Department of Public Health Sciences, the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences and the Center for Applied Geographic Information Science.

“This effort will develop and use state-of-the-art geographic information systems technologies,” said co-investigator Wenwu Tang, assistant professor in the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences. “The combined use of these latest geospatial technologies will greatly facilitate the collection, management, and maintenance of the wells database.”

The project will also strengthen UNC Charlotte’s existing expertise in spatial epidemiology and will apply CyberGIS and space-time GIS, which are contemporary research themes.

Gaston County will upgrade and move over 12,000 records from massive paper archives to the county Geographic Information System by digitizing and securing latitude-longitude coordinates for each of the wells. The funding will begin September 30, 2015 and run through August 31, 2020.

Words: Wills Citty and Lynn Roberson. Image: Lynn Roberson.