Private Well Systems and Breaking the Language Barrier

Date posted: 
Thursday, September 6, 2018 - 12:45
Blog poster: 
Nancy Finney and Jonna Ashley
Email of Blog Poster: 


NEHA interviewed Jennifer Wilson, from Illinois State Water Survey, to learn about the Private Well Class program, and how they adapted their curriculum to reach Spanish-speaking communities. Wilson has coordinated communications for and since 2010. Prior to joining the University of Illinois in 2008, she served as an environmental scientist with U.S. EPA’s drinking water program.

NEHA: What are the major issues that exist around private wells and their use? 

Wilson: 47 million people in the U.S. rely on more than 15 million private wells as their primary source of drinking water. However, many well owners don’t know how to care for their well, determine if the well water is safe to drink or protect groundwater from contamination. The lack of education surrounding private well systems endangers the health of Americans who rely on well water. The major issue is that the lack of knowledge about private well systems increases the vulnerability of the 102 million Americans served by public water systems that use groundwater – 135,000 public water supplies.  

NEHA: In 2015 you initiated a program to reach Spanish-speaking communities. How did this idea come about? 

Wilson: In 2013 my team at the University of Illinois launched a free, self-paced course for private well owners in the U.S at state, local, tribal, and territorial levels. The program,, was developed in collaboration with the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

We collected extensive user feedback since the beginning of the program and very quickly it became clear that environmental health professionals were a key demographic and interested in the materials. We heard repetitively from this audience that content needed to be available in Spanish. Our partners working in Puerto Rico underscored this need. 


NEHA: What were the challenges associated with translating the Private Well Class content to Spanish? 

Wilson: I am not a Spanish speaker, nor do we have one on staff. However, we are fortunate to be based at a major research university. We recognized how important it was to find a native speaker with enough technical expertise to capture language nuances in the source material. Our two translators were Ph.D. students in civil engineering and freshwater ecology. 

We also formed a review committee of native speakers who would be using the materials in the field with well owners. While our translation team did a wonderful job, these reviewers helped provide additional colloquial terminology. This is important because understanding by the readers and users is just as critical as technical accuracy.  

Details of our approach are outlined in my 2018 NEHA AEC presentation, which can be found on SlideShare


NEHA: In what other ways are private well, water, or public health issues compounded when working with communities who do not speak English? 

Wilson: It is generally more difficult to reach and educate private well users due to more remote locations, lack of regulations, poor recordkeeping, and attitudes towards water rights, public health, and government. The language barrier adds an additional complication to risk communication and outreach, which may be further exacerbated by cultural differences. We have found that having a champion within a community can help assuage fears and build trust and support for program implementation. 


NEHA: How can EH professionals work to implement your program and help educate people in their communities? 

Wilson: Earlier this year we launched as a Spanish-language portal. In lieu of just offering translated materials on our main website, we wanted to instill deeper trust in our program as a valuable resource. Website users can take our online class in Spanish and access a number of videos that have been translated and re-recorded. From time to time we offer a webinar in Spanish and we also link back to for additional materials. 

The best way for an EH professional to get started is by signing up for an upcoming webinar. We also have English and Spanish brochures available for display and distribution. Copies may be requested by emailing with your name, affiliation, and mailing address. Please provide the quantity requested, in multiples of 50.

More information about private wells and drinking water can be found on the NEHA website under EH Topics: Water Quality.

On October 16-17, 2018 NEHA will be hosting its first private drinking water virtual conference: Enhancing Safety in Private Drinking Water Systems, registration is free.

The Private Well Course is a resource for EH professionals for basic well and groundwater understanding. The class consists of 10 courses that can be taken in sequence or individually and are eligible for one CE each from NEHA.

Support the work of the National Environmental Health Association and those keeping our communities safe through Membership.

This project was facilitated by NEHA staff members Jonna Ashley (Membership Manager) and Nancy Finney, MPA (Technical Editor).


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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect NEHA policy, endorsement, or action, and NEHA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.  

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