At Mingus, even the water has to pass a test
There are 70 Arizona schools that get their water supply from on-campus wells. These schools serve about 82,000 students and staff.
Many schools with wells are set up like Cottonwood's Mingus Union High School.
MUHS has one well that provides potable water, or water that is safe to drink, to the campus and one well that provides non-potable water, or unregulated water that isn't intended for human consumption, for irrigation of the school's baseball field.
There are 20 schools in the Yavapai County that have on-site wells providing drinking water to their campuses. Mingus, Dr. Daniel Bright Elementary and St. Joseph's Catholic School are the only schools in Cottonwood that have potable water wells. Other Yavapai schools that use wells for drinking water include Yarnell Elementary School, Tri-city College Prep High School in Prescott, Chino Valley High School and Oak Creek Ranch School in Cornville.
Schools decide the way in which they supply campus water based on an economic cost-and-benefit analysis. They can either pay for a public water service (typically city or town water) to supply all campus water, pump water from on-site wells, or use both well water and another public water service jointly.
Regardless of the water delivery method, all potable water provided to schools undergoes stringent testing for unhealthy elements, or contaminants by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. This means that, in theory, drinking water from a well should be the same quality as drinking water from a city provider.
In Arizona, there are roughly 100 contaminants in drinking water regulated by state law and monitored by ADEQ, according to John Calkins, ADEQ drinking water section manager.
The monitoring frequency of the various contaminants depends on the location and classification of the wells. Wells close to contaminated soil or bodies of water will be tested more frequently for pollutants, Calkins said.
Due to Arizona's history of agricultural activity, the elements nitrate and arsenic are contaminants of concern in many areas of the state. The Yavapai County area is especially prone to high levels are arsenic. Over 20 schools in the county have on-campus wells that are tested regularly for arsenic levels.
MUHS in Cottonwood is one of those 20 schools. At the high school, Gary Allred is the plant foreman and is responsible for operating and maintaining the school's potable well. Allred administers monthly tests for arsenic in the water supply and sends quarterly tests directly to ADEQ for review. Hired professionals outside of the school oversee tests for biological contaminants such as bacteria, molds and viruses.
"We use a kit that has been approved by ADEQ (to test for contaminants)," Allred said. "It's actually the kit we're required to use."
The kit process is split into three parts: 1. Add a specified chemical to the water and leave it in for so much time. 2. Insert a paper tab into the water. 3. Pull the tab out and compare its color to a chart that describes contaminant levels based on color, according to Allred.
If contaminant levels ever exceed regulation, ADEQ and the school collaborate to either implement a strategy for cleaning the water or shut down operation of the well, depending on the severity of the contamination, Calkins said.
When schools encounter water quality problems with their wells, they coordinate with Calkins' team at ADEQ to release a public announcement. However, after the water begins treatment, the public doesn't hear much about it.
MUHS superintendent Paul Tighe said that the school would follow Arizona Department of Health guidelines in creating a public announcement for a water quality issue. The school has multiple ways of communicating with parents and students, whether it's by school news broadcast, an auditorium announcement, an auto-dial phone message or a written letter, according to Tighe.
"We are required to notify parents (when there is a high level of contaminant in the drinking water)," Allred said. "We have to say what we did to correct it. For example, that we changed the filters or whatever we did."
The water purification process in the state is a multi-barrier process, which means there are multiple levels of safety requirements that have to be met in order for water sites, including wells, to operate. Standards for location, well design and materials, operator licensing, and testing regimens must all be met.
"It's complicated for a good reason," Calkins said. "You don't just approve something once and sample it once and then it's good indefinitely, because things change."
Calkins believes water quality, quantity and conservation awareness should be addressed.
"Because I'm in this line of work, I think it's personally important," he said. "I think water awareness generally is something that should be elevated and that people should know a little something about."
Alyssa Clark is a sophomore at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University,