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Decommissioning Out-Of-Service Water Wells


Windmills dot the Nebraska landscape. Perhaps there is one on your acreage. Did you ever stop to think that this picturesque scene could be contributing to groundwater contamination?

Not the windmill itself, but perhaps the well below. Often, these wells are deteriorating and no longer used, but the well shaft is still a direct connection from the ground surface to the underlying aquifer. This can allow surface runoff to flow directly to the water-bearing zones, often carrying organic wastes, fertilizers, and other chemical residues such as pesticides and petroleum products into the groundwater. Small animals can fall into these wells, further adding to the contamination.

Contaminants that enter an old, out-of-service well can migrate to in- service water supplies such as a new well on the property, or a neighbor's well. Once groundwater is contaminated, it is difficult, if not impossible, to clean up, and the process is always expensive.

Unused wells, especially those that are old and/or in disrepair, or that do not meet current standards as an inactive well, pose a major threat to groundwater quality and represent a serious threat to human health and safety. State law defines these as illegal wells.

There are thousands of these wells on farmsteads, acreages, and other rural areas throughout the state. Early Nebraska settlers found that many areas had relatively abundant groundwater that could be obtained fairly easily. In many situations, it was common to have more than one well on each farmstead because it was easier to construct a well at the point of use rather than develop a central well and water distribution system. Farm consolidation, rural electrification, and general modernization took many of these old wells out of service. Also, when an old farmstead is sold off as an acreage, the new owner frequently has a new well drilled, but neglects to properly decommission the old well or wells on the property.

Not all out-of-service wells are located in rural areas. There likely are hundreds, and possibly thousands, located in communities throughout the state. In the early development of communities, most households and businesses had an individual water-supply well. Most of these water wells have since been replaced by community water-supply systems, but in some cases, the old wells were not properly decommissioned.

While a windmill tower can be an almost sure sign, wells can be present at many other locations too. Some signs that an old well might exist include: concrete pads where the legs of a windmill tower once stood; depressions where an old well pit or the walls of a dug well may have collapsed; an old stock tank in an over-grown area; a small area that is fenced off, especially if there are also pipes sticking out of the ground; flat stones, a concrete slab, old boards, metal sheets, or other items that could be covering an old well shaft; and many others. Sometimes there are no signs, and the well may be discovered only by accident.

Nebraska regulations require that illegal wells be decommissioned following the requirements found in Title 178, Chapter 12, Regulations Governing Water Well Construction, Pump Installation and Water Well Decommissioning Standards of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. With only one exception, well decommissioning must be carried out or supervised by an individual with a valid Nebraska Water Well Standards and Contractors’ license.

The decommissioning process includes removal of well equipment (pump, piping, etc), disinfection, sealing, filling, capping, and reporting (see graphic).

The cost of decommissioning a well depends on several factors including accessibility, construction technique and materials, diameter, depth, condition, and contractor travel distance. Data from the Lower Platte North Natural

Resources District show that decommissioning 44 domestic or livestock wells since 2005 cost an average of $484 per well. These wells were between 2 and 4 inches in diameter and from 50 to 400 feet in depth, with an average depth of approximately 180 feet. There were also 6 hand-dug wells averaging 28 inches in diameter and 42 feet deep that cost an average of $887 to decommission.

Fortunately, because of the importance of protecting water quality, nearly every Natural Resources District (NRD) offers an attractive incentive to assist well owners with the cost of decommissioning. Payment rates vary by NRD, but typically these programs will pay for 60 to 75% of the costs. With these cost-share payments, out-of-pocket expense to the well owner will often be on the order of $150 for most domestic and livestock wells - a small price to pay to help assure that water quality and human health and safety are protected.

To apply for well decommissioning cost-share assistance, well owners must first contact the appropriate NRD for an information and application packet that gives program guidelines, forms, and instructions. No cost-share payments can be made unless all procedures are followed.

If there is an unused well on your property, contact the NRD office today to begin the decommissioning process. It’s okay to keep the windmill for decoration, but have the well properly sealed and do your part to protect groundwater quality and human health and safety.

Locate your Natural Resources District Office , 

decommissioned well diagram

By David Shelton, UNL Extension Agricultural Engineer