Protecting Private Drinking Water Wells: A Brief Guide

Water well pump in a grassy field that is protecting with state regulations and CDC and EPA recommendations.

In the United States, water wells are regulated by state law rather than federal law. This means that each state has its own set of rules and regulations regarding the drilling and maintenance of water wells. While there is some variation from state to state, all states have laws designed to protect private water wells safety.

However, a 2018 study by the World Water Council asserts that inconsistent regulations could increase the risk of water contamination in some states. Landowners who operate private water wells for agricultural, commercial, or residential purposes can take measures to enhance the safety of their groundwater.

Permitting & Approval For Private Wells

Almost every state requires landowners to apply and be approved for a permit before constructing a private well. Permitting is vital for several reasons. Permitting creates uniform expectations that account for lesser-known safety requirements related to drilling and construction.

Some states provide different permits based on the intended use. For example, Colorado wells are classified as exempt or non-exempt. Exempt well permits are required for agricultural and commercial installations that consume significant amounts of water and require argumentation plans to restore the water table’s balance.

Permits can be obtained from the state engineer’s office, health department, or natural resources agency. The issuing agency can vary from state to state, but the process is generally similar.

In several states, well permits are not required to be updated after approval. Therefore, anyone interested in drilling a well should inquire about existing well permits before applying. Many states offer a database of existing permits. Older properties may include wells that were drilled before the governing state issued laws related to permitting. In these instances, the new property owner should refer to the state regulations before using the well.

Along with uniform permitting policies, several states also require private landowners to hire approved contractors, further facilitating compliance with best safety practices.

Choosing the Location For a Private Well

Before drilling a private well, it is essential to choose an appropriate location, as negligent siting will dramatically increase the potential for contamination or maintenance issues.

The CDC offers several guidelines for safely positioning a private water well.

First, property owners must be aware of their well’s proximity to fixed sources of contamination. Below is a list of common contaminating sources and the closest they can safely be to groundwater wells.

  • Septic tanks: 50′
  • Livestock yards, food repositories & animal septic systems: 50′
  • Storage tanks/containers for petroleum, manure & fertilizer: 100′
  • Manure deposits: 250′

Anyone operating a private water well must be aware of non-fixed contaminants that soak through the ground and infiltrate their water supply.

Both non-natural contaminants and natural soils pollutant can influence water sanitation.

Water Testing Suggestions

After a private well is constructed, all property owners should conduct regular testing to ensure the ongoing safety of their drinking water. The EPA suggests annual well water testing plus additional testing if the owner has reason to believe the water safety levels have been compromised. However, state policies may require increased or decreased frequency.

Private well water tests evaluate levels of bacteria and contaminants to determine if it is fit for human consumption. Most professionals will conduct separate tests for common issues like coliform bacteria, pesticides, dissolved solids, and volatile organic compounds.

In addition to annual testing, well owners need to be aware of common symptoms of water contamination. Recognizing the earliest signs of water pollution can safeguard people from severe illnesses.

Signs of potential water contamination include:

  • Discoloration
  • Change in taste or smell
  • Recent reports of contamination in the area

If a test reveals contamination, the owners have a few options for remediation. Home water systems can be installed to filter out contaminants and disinfect tap water. More severe instances of contamination may require redrilling.

Private wells require regular maintenance to ensure that they remain safe and clean. In addition to annual water quality tests, owners must also conduct annual tests for mechanical problems. Left untreated, system malfunctions can leave the household and the surrounding area at risk of contamination.

Best Practices For Abandoning a Well

Wells that are no longer in use can seriously threaten the quality of underground water sources. When these abandoned wells are not properly sealed, they can act as a conduit for contamination. If there are other wells in the vicinity that are actively being used, the risk of contamination increases, as pumping can draw contaminated water down the abandoned well and into the aquifer.

Destroying unused wells prevents contamination and numerous other hazards, but standards vary in every state. For example, California requires well destruction to be done by a state-licensed contractor. Water well users in states without destruction standards can protect the water in their area by filling it with cement or another similar material. Regardless of state policy, land owners should inquire with local health agencies before destroying or abandoning a well.

Private Well Owners Are Responsible For Their Water Safety

It’s up to private well owners to ensure the safety of their water supply. While state policy may dictate certain regulations, individual landowners shoulder many responsibilities. By understanding the basics of water well maintenance and drilling, landowners can take steps to supplement the water safety standards enforced by their states.

Contributing Author: Greg Smith, BoulderHomeSouce

Greg Smith is a RE/MAX Hall of Famer and owner of RE/MAX Alliance, the largest locally-owned real estate company in Colorado.

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