Water Quality


The survey included characteristics of water quality determined by team members through visual and smell descriptions. Visual descriptions were divided into two categories “infrastructure + water” and “water only.” For each characteristic under these two categories, the team indicated if the characteristic was present and provide a description. “Infrastructure + water” visual descriptors could be noted on the structure of the water source, a communal bucket, or the water itself. Team members looked for and recorded the presence of scale/scum, unclear/turbid water, green stains, brown-red (rust) stains, and the presence of small animals inside the source/bucket. Team members noted additional issues as they seemed fit. Visual characteristics for “water only” included leaf litter, brown water, or cloudy water that cleared upon standing.

The following characteristics were examined:

Scale/ Scum – May indicate high Calcium or Magnesium salt in water (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002).   Is not problematic for health but it can give you problems when washing because it indicates hard water which does not allow soap to lather (Wal, 2010).

Turbidity (cloudy water) – May interfere with decontamination; provides a medium for microbial growth; may indicate presence of disease-causing organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause nausea, cramps, and diarrhea (Environmental Protection Agency, 2013).

Green stains on well or piping – Can indicate high acidity or presence of copper (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002; Peason & Bauder, 2012).

Reddish brown stains (rust stains) combined with brown water inside well – May be an indicator of dissolved iron in water (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002). Iron can have a bad metallic taste and makes water brown when it is left in a bucket or boiled. This may cause people to reject the water source (Wal, 2010).

Turbid (cloudy) water that clears upon standing – Indicates poorly working pump or a problem with filters (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002).

Small animals inside the well – Some small animals are vectors of pathogens and their presence indicates a vulnerability to these pathogens. For example, frogs are carriers of salmonella.

Leaf litter – indicates a vulnerability to other pathogens as it shows that the well is susceptible to intrusion. Some leaves also release tannic acid which may impact the pH of the water.


Teams collected water samples from each source and conducted “sniff” tests. One person was designated as the “sniffer” and conducted all smell tests to ensure as much consistency as possible. The smell descriptors included a rotten egg odor, detergent odor, chlorine odor, gasoline/oil odor, methane gas odor, and musty/earthy odor. If other noteworthy scents were present team members recorded the smells. If present, each smell was ranked on a scale of 1-5 with five being the strongest.

The following odors indicate possible issues with the water source:

Rotten egg odor – Can be from dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas or certain bacteria (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002).

Detergent odor (with possible foam when drawn) – Can indicate seepage from septic systems, if they exist (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002). Can also indicate seepage from detergent from washing clothes nearby.

Chlorine odor – May result from excessive chlorination which can be dangerous when concsumed (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002).

Gasoline/oil odor – May indicate seepage from tanks and generators into water supply
(Environmental Protection Agency, 2002). It may be advisable to follow-up with a hydrocarbon scan or a test for volatile organic chemicals (Peason & Bauder, 2012).

Methane gas or musty odor – Both may indicate decaying organic matter in water (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002). Methane in high concentrations can cause oxygen-deficient atmospheres, flammable situations, and explosive environments. Methane in ground water is not explosive, but when the water comes into contact with air, the methane escapes into the atmosphere; when this occurs in a confined space, the methane could ignite if there is a nearby electrical outlet, pilot light, electric well pump, or match (Indiana Department of Natural Resources, n.d.). Methane odor may also be an indicator of a poorly vented water source.

Water Quality Tests

Water samples were taken from each water source and teams performed the following tests: total coliform, E. coli, pH level, nitrate, nitrite, salinity, and specific gravity. In some cases, water samples could not be obtained and tests were not conducted. Due to limited resources salinity and specific gravity tests where not conducted on some samples.

The pH tests and nitrate/nitrite tests were conducted using testing strips and results were obtained onsite next to the water source.

Salinity and specific gravity were obtained from an Extech refractometer that automatically calibrated for temperature and salinity tests were conducted on site or later using a sample brought back to the hotel. The refractometer was regularly calibrated every morning and any other time it appeared that there was a drastic change in temperature or pressure.

E. coli and total coliform tests were conducted using Colilert. Water samples were put into the 100 mg bottles at the site and brought back to the hotel. All samples were collected daily from the field teams and were brought back to one specific hotel room and the reactive solution was put into each container. The containers were then shaken, as directed, and placed into an incubator for 24 hours. After 24 hours, the samples were removed and the results of either positive or negative for the presence of E. coli were recorded. Photos were also taken of the incubated water samples as the results are visually confirmable.

Total Coliform

Total coliform are a family of bacteria that are found in animal wastes, surface soils, and vegetation. The presence of total coliform in waster can indicate that other, potentially harmful, bacteria may be present (Environmental Protection Agency, 2013).

A positive result for total coliform does not indicate that there is something harmful (disease-causing) in the water; instead it indicates vulnerability. If detected, coliform bacteria may indicate that there are more dangerous pathogens already in the water or that there is vulnerability for them to enter the water source. For example, if the water source appeared well sealed but the water tested positive for total coliform, there may be an infrastructure vulnerability of the water source for outside contamination that cannot be directly observed.

E. Coli

E.Coli is a group of bacteria found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and their presence in a water test indicates recent fecal contamination from either human waste or animal waste (Leed, Greenville & Lanark Health Unit, 2014). The presence of E.Coli in water is a definitive indicator of fecal contamination of the water. Microbes from fecal waste can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, and other symptoms (Environmental Protection Agency, 2013).

pH Level

pH is a measure of the acidity of water. If the pH of water is low, the water is acidic.

Disinfection using chlorine is generally more effective at lower pH levels (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). The CDC provides efficacy of chlorine treatments for various bacterial, viral, and protozoal pathogens and includes the pH ranges that are most ideal for decontamination.

Water with low pH may cause corrosion to steel and cast iron components of hand pumps (Wal, 2010).


Nitrates can be found naturally in groundwater but can also be due to human activities. Human waste, animal waste (such as manure), and fertilizers all contain nitrates (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002).

Nitrates in high amounts can cause health problems in young infants, especially when mixed with baby formula or baby food, as they can cause ‘blue baby syndrome’ (methemoglobinemia) which disrupts the oxygen flow in the blood (Environmental Protection Agency, 2002). Infants under age 6 months are the most susceptible.

There is no danger of blue baby syndrome to children, adults, or breastfed infants (Vermont Department of Health, 2014). There is still research ongoing to determine the effects of nitrates and nitrites during pregnancy and it is recommended that pregnant women try to drink water that does not have high levels of nitrates or nitrites (Vermont Department of Health, 2014).

Salinity and Specific Gravity

The baseline measurement for distilled freshwater is 1000 ppm for salinity and 1.0 for specific gravity. Measuring the saltwater concentration of water sources determines if saltwater intrusion of the water table was occurring. If so, this indicates a general vulnerability to saltwater intrusion and a heightened vulnerability when storm surge and wave action occur during a hurricane. If well depth could not be determined, knowing there is saltwater intrusion pre-disaster provides additional information from a vulnerability standpoint.

Surrounding Area Description

Teams also documented the area surrounding each water source. They described the soil and vegetation surrounding the water source as well as whether the source was shaded or in full sunlight. The documentation form included a list of questions regarding area surrounding the water source. Team members recorded the location of these features in reference to the water source (elevation, direction, distance) and provided detailed descriptions of the features. The following questions were asked:

  • Are there any human waste disposal areas or is there any human waste present within 30 meters of the water source?
  • Are there any animals penned up within 30 meters of the water source?
  • Are there any animals or evidence of animals being moved within 30 meters of the water source?
  • Are there any food or wastewater disposal areas (kitchen and/or laundry wash water disposal areas) within 15 meters of the water source?
  • Are there any solid waste landfills (dumps) or chemical or industrial waste disposal areas within 150 meters from the water source?
  • Is there any surface water/standing water pooled near the well?
  • Is there any evidence of agricultural activity near the well? Do we know if that activity uses chemicals/pesticides/fertilizers?

Data collected on water sources is available in Appendix A.