PALMER — Beth Potter woke up to intense shaking around 8:30 a.m. Nov. 30 as the 7.0 earthquake hit her place off Bogard Road near Wasilla.
Potter’s baby slept through it. Her toddler woke up. Potter and her husband hustled them both out of the house. Their two older children were at school. Everybody was OK.
The 2-year-old home weathered the shaking just fine.
That’s another story.
“It’s a brown-grayish color. You can’t see through it,” Potter said this week about the water at her home. “It leaves dirt in my sink if I do anything with it. My toilets are disgusting. They’re terrible. It doesn’t matter if you clean them.”
The Potters joined countless people on private wells across the quake zone who are still contending with water headaches nearly two weeks later. Reports, many of them in Mat-Su, range from cloudy or nearly black water to positive tests for bacteria.
Stores are running through supplies of bottled water and filters as residents err on the side of safety or wait on water tests to come back clean.
“We’ve been so busy, ma’am, we don’t have time to talk,” said a woman who answered the phone at Mat-Su Water LLC in Wasilla this week but hung up before giving her name. “I’m currently totally busied up.”
Testing the water
One of a few certified water testing labs in Mat-Su processed an average of 75 water samples every day last week.
Mat-Su Test Lab LLC normally gets five people coming in — a week, said lab analyst Anne Gleason. About 10 to 15 percent of the samples from last week tested positive for total coliform bacteria.
Coliform bacteria are common, found in places like soil and on plants, as well as in human and animal intestines. Most won’t make people sick, but their presence can indicate potentially harmful pathogens such as bacteria that can cause diarrhea and vomiting.
It’s possible at least some of those wells would have tested positive before the quake, Gleason said. “A lot of these people don’t really sample on a regular basis, so there’s not a pre and a post. I’m not sure if it was there before the earthquake or after.”
Water problems aren’t limited to Mat-Su, where roughly 8,000 households rely on private wells rather than community or public water systems.
One homeowner off Hiland Drive in south Eagle River saw water coming out of his well casing this week. An Eagle River resident who lives on Fire Lake said that as of Tuesday, he’d been running a hose straight from his compromised well into the yard since the Sunday after the quake.
Another Fire Lake resident, Dolly Caswell, lost water pressure and hot water.
“It gets to be pretty testy when you can’t get your shower, you can’t flush the toilet,” Caswell said Wednesday.
She called electricians, then plumbers, until one recommended Sullivan Water Wells. That company replaced her water pump. She got water — and a shower — on Tuesday.
The fix cost nearly $2,400, money Caswell hopes at least partly to recoup through state disaster assistance. But any financial help is still some time away.
“It was fortunate enough that I was able to pay for it," she said. “What about people who can’t?”
Reports of damaged wells are coming in to a hotline set up for the state’s individual disaster assistance program, according to Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesman Jeremy Zidek. He couldn’t say how many.
There is a process for people with quake damage, including wells, to apply for compensation through the program, Zidek said. But it’s not immediate and may not cover all costs.
“What we recommend people do is make any repairs that are necessary to make their home livable and restore normal services,” he said. “Document the damage. Keep receipts. And then present those documents to their individual assistance case manager for reimbursement.”
Damage can be reported to the state’s disaster assistance program at ready.alaska.gov.
Bacteria, rodents, arsenic?
Experts say it’s likely the earthquake is the reason for the bad-water problems, though the exact path isn’t clear.
A strong quake might shake up or loosen underground materials and lead to turbid or cloudy water, said Charley Palmer, a hydrologist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Sometimes, if wells use treatment or disinfection systems, turbidity can impair that process and potentially lead to the presence of coliform bacteria.
But there’s also anecdotal evidence that big rainfall events or suddenly warmer weather, like the kind that showed up just after the Nov. 30 quake, can lead to temporary spikes in total coliform detections, Palmer said. It’s possible the combination of the quake’s shaking and the rainfall moving material into aquifers could trigger more total coliform detections.
“There’s probably some relation there, but we don’t have any strong evidence of that,” he said.
Numerous people reported delayed problems like gray or almost black water pouring from taps that had run clear for several days after the quake. That’s because they ran through the pre-quake water in holding tanks and moved onto “quake water” still unstable from repeated aftershocks that were fairly strong, said Amy Hill, who directs the Wasilla office of the state drinking water program.
“It may just take time for the aquifers to readjust and the silt and sediment to kind of filter out,” Hill said.
Well owners should also check for other less expected issues after earthquakes, recommended Dave Kranich, who owns Northern Utility Services. If ground shifting loosens well caps, rodents can get in, so people should check their wellheads.
But the shifting can also change how water flows from septic tanks, depending how close they are to the well, Kranich said. A nitrate test can check for potential contamination.
And earthquakes can change surrounding levels of arsenic, a naturally occurring element that can be poisonous at elevated levels. Testing for arsenic is another step Kranich often recommends after a big quake.
“It can make it go away — or come again,” he said.
It’s hard to get a handle on how many people are still dealing with water issues. Many are calling well contractors, water treatment companies or water sellers instead of local or state governments.
At least one person with well problems is part of the government: Alex Strawn, the development services manager for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
A small crew showed up Wednesday at the Strawn place on Lazy Mountain and fixed a broken water line. The family didn’t know there was a problem until they used up the contents of two 300-gallon holding tanks.
“We realized it when our tanks went dry,” Strawn said. “It was like, oh man, we are out of water.”
Beth Potter, meanwhile, said her water looked somewhat better Tuesday after a water conditioning company removed buckets of gray silt, emptied the settling tank and ran water around the system.
But it still wasn’t good enough.
So what’s next?
The family of four could try a different silt-filtering polymer blend. Or wait a little longer and ultimately have to replace the filter media if it was ruined, Potter said Wednesday.
“That will be pricey and hopefully it will work,” she wrote in an email. “Otherwise, honestly I don’t know.”
What to do with a post-quake well
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recommends that private well owners dealing with potential earthquake damage:
• Inspect the well for visible damage.
• Test water if there are signs of well damage or the water looks, smells or tastes strange. DEC provides a list of certified water testing labs at bit.ly/2zTAZ2s. Instructions for disinfecting wells can be found at bit.ly/2LcHQrV.
• Use an alternate water supply until well water is determined to be safe.
• Contact a well contractor or engineer to do an evaluation of the water system if the water remains cloudy. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service offers tips on selecting a contractor at uaf.edu/ces.
For more information, contact your local DEC drinking water program office.