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An Interview with Erin Ling and Site Visit to the VAHWQP Laboratory

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Back in October, Steve Wilson and I had the opportunity to visit with Erin Ling and the Virginia Household Water Quality Program laboratory at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. Erin Ling is a Water Quality Extension Associate that helps to coordinate the Virginia Household Water Quality Program located at Virginia Tech which provides drinking water clinics for Virginia residents that rely of private water supplies. We were able to tour the facility, see the equipment, and interact with some of the individuals that make up the team at the Biological Systems Engineering Water Quality Lab.

Q: Can you tell me a little more about your lab on campus?:

EL: The BSE Water Quality Lab has been a part of our Biological Systems Engineering Department at Virginia Tech for decades (the department was founded in 1920, and soil and water conservation has always been a major focus). The Virginia Household Water Quality Program has been processing samples through the lab since 1989, and the lab’s qualified staff and equipment provide an amazing resource to Virginians through this program. The lab also handles a variety of samples related to stream and wetland ecology engineering research. Historically the lab was located in Seitz Hall on campus, and we were very fortunate to be moved to the beautiful new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1 in 2014. The lab is not state-certified, although we follow all standard methods and maintain appropriate QA/QC. VAHWQP samples we process are intended for educational purposes, and we often refer people to certified labs for additional testing.

Q: What constituents does your lab sample for and for whom?:

EL: VAHWQP relies on a network of about 85 Extension agents across the state to help run well testing and education programs in about 55 counties each year (there are 95 counties in Virginia). The program is open to all Virginians who rely on private water supplies (mostly wells with a few springs in the mountainous parts of the state). In Virginia, about 1 in 5 people rely on private water supplies, which is about 1.7 million people. We sample for 14 parameters, including total coliform and E. coli bacteria, lead, arsenic, copper, nitrate, pH, hardness, sulfate, fluoride, sodium, total dissolved solids, iron, and manganese.

Q: Who makes up your team in the lab?:

EL: In the BSE Water Quality lab, we have the pleasure of working with Kelly Peeler, lab manager; Asa Spiller, lab assistant; and a variety of talented graduate and undergraduate students. We are also fortunate to have a partnership with Dr. Marc Edwards’ lab in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech (a.k.a. the “Flint Lab”, made famous for helping to characterize the dire situation with lead in water in Flint, Michigan). Starting in 2011, we began analyzing our well and spring water samples for lead, arsenic and a suite of additional metals. We really appreciate the assistance of Dr. Edwards, Dr. Kelsey Pieper, and Dr. Jeff Parks, the lead analyst in that lab. Our program has benefited from partnering with a variety of researchers, including those in the Flint Lab. Here is a list of the peer-reviewed papers that have been published in collaboration with VAHWQP.

Q: What sort of problems/contaminants does your lab see most often?:

EL: We see a lot of bacteria, mostly coliform (present in about 40% of samples) and some E. coli (present in about 10% of samples). This is why we tie a lot of our education to proper well location and construction. We also see a lot of lead in water supplied by wells in parts of the state. Up to 1 in 5 samples contains more than 15 ppb lead in first draw samples. Based on research conducted by Kelsey Pieper, we understand that this lead is coming from lead solder, brass components manufactured before Jan 2014, and sometimes galvanized steel. Lead is more of a problem in certain geologies (crystalline bedrock, found in the Blue Ridge and Piedmont of Virginia), and in shallower wells, where we find water that is often more acidic and therefore corrosive. We also find a fair amount of nuisance contaminants, mostly iron, manganese and hardness. Testing is the only way to know what’s in your water!

Q: What is the cost for residents to have their water tested? Do you/they receive any subsidies or discounts based on income?

EL: We charge $55 per sample for the 14 parameters, which is a pretty reasonable price for this number of parameters. Some counties are able to coordinate to provide subsidies by getting grants or donations locally.

Q: What has been the most challenging thing with coordinating and operating a university laboratory for the VAHWQ Program?

EL: Really just the biggest challenge is promoting the program and keeping up with demand to continue to grow in the most sustainable way possible. We would love to be able to serve everyone exactly when they want to test, but have to stick to our schedule (we offer testing in 3-4 counties per week for most weeks of the year), as we aren’t able to process individual samples. We are so fortunate to have the facilities and people we have to work with, and really have benefitted from working with such an extensive network of Extension agents across the state. We couldn’t do it without the human capacity, facilities and support of our many partners!

Q: For the two programs, VWON & VAHWQP, how do they work together, if at all?

EL: VWON is the Virginia Well Owner Network. We modeled this program after Penn State’s successful Master Well Owner Network, which is comprised mostly of volunteers who educate well owners about their water supplies. Although we do have a small volunteer network that is available to answer questions from the public, over time, we have shifted to focus on training Extension agents and what we call “agency collaborators” who are staff members of state agencies that also work with well owners, such as Virginia Dept of Health and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The Extension agents, as I mentioned, conduct drinking water testing programs locally with support from our campus faculty. They are our way of being able to hold many more programs across the state, and have a cadre of local experts to help answer the thousands of questions we get each year from the public. Agency collaborators help answer questions and refer people to the Virginia Household Water Quality Program whenever possible. We also have a close partnership with the Virginia Water Well Association, the state well drilling contractors’ membership group. They have been invaluable in providing technical assistance, serving as guest speakers, and helping us build and develop WellCheck (, which is a partnership that provides well inspections to homeowners who need help with their wells after participating in a VAHWQP program.


ABOVE LEFT: The ion chromatograph (IC) is used to analyze anions such as fluoride, sulfate and nitrate in well and spring water samples.
Lab assistant Asa Spiller speaks with a group of visiting high school students about keeping track of samples in the lab and measuring pH and electroconductivity.


BSE Water Quality Lab Manager Kelly Peeler gets ready to process some samples received from Virginia well and spring users.
VAHWQP provides bacteria results as MPN (most probable number), using the Colilert ™ method. This is one 100 mL sample, poured and sealed into a Quantitray and incubated for 24 hours. Cells that are yellow contain coliform bacteria and cells that glow when held under ultraviolet light contain E. coli. By counting the number of each, we can statistically estimate the number of each type of bacteria in the sample, which can give homeowners an idea of the extent of contamination.
Virginia Household Water Quality Program coordinator Erin Ling checks well and spring water samples for bacteria presence using Colilert ™. (Photo by Virginia Tech University Relations)

ABOVE: BSE Water Quality Lab Manager Kelly Peeler sorts sample kits from Virginia well and spring users. (Photo by Virginia Tech University Relations)

To learn more about the VAHWQP you can view the 2017 Schedule and 2016 Annual Report at: 
Virginia Household Water Quality Program 2017 Schedule 
Virginia Household Water Quality Program 2016 Annual Report