Can You Dig a Well Anywhere? Is It Legal?

Having a well means you have a basically limitless amount of water that isn’t subject to destruction or disruption the same way that municipal or city water supplies are.

looking down a well
looking down a well

But not all properties have a well already. Wherever you live, if you want to install a well on your own property can you? Is it legal to always install a well?

Generally, yes, you can dig a well on any property that you own subject to city, county and state laws for digging and well installation. Chances are you’ll need a permit, and there are many technical considerations to consider, however.

Well digging is a practice that has been going on pretty much since forever, and one that continues today around all corners of the country and much of the globe.

But there’s a lot that you’ll need to figure out before you start digging a well, and chances are there’ll be no small amount of red tape.

But keep reading and I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the legal landscape concerning digging your own well, and other factors you must consider.

Drilling a Well on Your Property is Typically Legal

You’ll be relieved to know that, digging a well on your own property is legal pretty much everywhere, one way or another.

Whether you need a well for utility water use or for supplying your own home with potable water, a well is likely a viable solution.

However, that’s not to say there won’t be rules and regulations you’ll still have to consider.

Is It Really Illegal To Drill Your Own Well???

It is all but certain that they will, and in most densely populated cities installing a well might be explicitly or practically prohibited, meaning you’ll need to hookup to city water supplies.

The rule of thumb is that you’ll want to contact your local government planning office to discuss the prospect in your area.

They can tell you right up front what you need to know, and other factors like how deep your well likely needs to be and other requirements.

Don’t skip this crucial step if you are even thinking of digging your own well, but I will tell you more about the most salient legal and practical factors in the next sections…

City, County or State Laws and Ordinances To Worry About

The legal landscape for well digging is subject to multiple layers, most commonly city or municipal and county laws on the matter, and sometimes state-level laws as well.

This legal “landscape”, if you will, can be many-layered and complex depending on where you live!

Each of these jurisdictional laws will entail different restrictions: the local-level laws often dictate the specifics of the well hardware, operation and its placement, including permitted locations, depth restrictions, water quality standards, and required permits.

Usually, this is done under the auspices of maintaining public health and safety by ensuring that wells are constructed away from potential sources of contamination like septic systems or waste disposal sites.

County laws might address even broader environmental considerations, such as the impact of well drilling on local ecosystems and groundwater resources.

At the other end, state-level laws are usually less concerned with the well’s operation and installation, but cover bigger-picture stuff like licensing requirements for well drillers, technical specifications for well installation, and regulations on residential well water usage.

As always, note that these laws do vary significantly from one state to another!

You Will Almost Certainly Need a Permit

One thing you must plan on, unless you live in a very remote area of a very permissive state when it comes to well drilling, is that you’ll need a permit in order to drill your well whether or not you are doing it yourself or hiring it out.

Permits are required as a way for the local government to keep tabs on you, again under the auspices of things like overall water quality, and most places require at least a cursory inspection of the well site and the final construction before it can be used.

You’ll need to contact your local permitting authority in order to apply for a permit, and you should expect that process will take at least several weeks.

Depending on your county and city requirements, the permitting process itself might mean a significant amount of red tape and fees before you can even begin.

A Professional Well Driller Might Need to Install Your Well

As hard as it is to believe, folks have been indeed drilling their own wells for a very long time.

This is one of those projects that you can save a bundle on by doing yourself, and it is possible to rent all the equipment you might need for a typical installation that isn’t too deep. Talk about the pioneer spirit!

But while the idea of digging and installing your own well may seem appealing, especially as a cost-saving measure, it’s crucial to consider the complexities involved in the process.

Put simply, this is something that is super-easy to screw up! Sometimes, mistakes and blunders that commonly occur when drilling a well have far-reaching consequences.

Accordingly, many states and even some counties will mandate that your well be installed by the pros.

This greatly increases the chances of a successful install with minimal snags, but it’s also dramatically more expensive for you than a DIY install.

You might even be forced to hire contractors even for simple, shallow wells used for nonpotable purposes.

But considering that incorrect well drilling and pump installation practices can lead to serious contamination (including mass contamination of the source!) this is not an unwarranted mandate in most locales.

If your state or county requires that you use the services of a pro and you get caught doing it yourself you will be facing major trouble.

This can take the form of fines and criminal charges, as we will discuss in a moment, and it could potentially result in a clouded title on your property, meaning there will an irregularity or defect in the chain of title.

That’s a show-stopper if you ever need or want to sell your land!

Well Laws Violations and Codes You Might be Subject to Fines or Criminal Charges

However straightforward or byzantine your state and county laws on well installation are, it is imperative that you follow them to the letter: Violating well drilling laws and codes can have serious financial and legal consequences.

While the specifics of penalties likewise vary depending on the laws in the area where you live, generally most jurisdictions impose serious fines and in some cases criminal charges.

In South Carolina, for example, violations of well regulations are subject to penalties as provided in Sections 48-1-320 and 44-55-90 of SC’s Code Regulations.

These penalties could range from fines to potential imprisonment, depending on the severity of the violation and whether it’s a repeated offense.

Similarly, in states like California, anyone who constructs, alters, or destroys a well without a license may be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction may be fined anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or imprisoned in the county jail.

Penalties for violating well construction laws and codes in Florida similarly range from fines to imprisonment, depending on the severity and the consequences of any mishaps.

A botched well that contaminates wetlands means you are going to have the book thrown at you!

If you don’t want to court these bad outcomes, it is essential to adhere strictly to all relevant laws and regulations when digging and installing a well.

Not All Locations are Suitable for Well Drilling

Another factor, and one that is entirely practical instead of legal, that must be considered before you dig your well, is the simple fact that not all locations are suitable for well drilling.

Although it’s a broadly true fact that nearly everywhere on Earth has water deep below the ground that is reachable, if you drill deeply enough, the logistics and expense of actually reaching it in some places might make it an untenable prospect.

For instance, if you are high up in the mountains or anywhere else where there is lots and lots of rock to go through, this might make the difficulty and cost of drilling a well exorbitantly expensive.

Likewise, you might live in an area where drilling a well is technically possible but the average amount of water you’d expect your will to produce is well below that required of a typical household.

A functional well will produce anywhere from 3 to 5 gallons per minute, but a good well will produce at least 8 to 10 GPM and preferably more.

A lackluster well is also more vulnerable to drought and falling water tables. Is it worth it to install such a well?

Another issue is that the best area for drilling a well on your property might be technically very challenging to drill on.

Even if you have soft soil, but must go very deeply on an uneven or broken part of the property a large drill rig might not be able to maneuver into position.

I could go on, but these are just a few examples of things that must be anticipated and accounted for before you start spending money on your well!

Any Area that is Flood-Prone is Usually a No-Go

Regardless of other terrain factors, if your property is prone to flooding, or you’re well location is prone to flooding, there’s a pretty good chance that it isn’t suitable for drilling a well.

This is because of flooding makes contamination of the well and potentially the water source far more likely than it would otherwise in a higher, drier location.

This is an especially big concern for shallow wells, although it isn’t out of the question that deep wells could be affected also.

If you’re having a professional survey performed for locating your well, this will be a factor that the surveyors or well drilling company should check, but don’t take that for granted and make sure you do your own due diligence.

Potential or Prior Contamination Might Make Your Well Unsuitable

If you haven’t ascertained as much by now from all of my cautionary mentions throughout this article, well contamination is a big, big deal and an even bigger deal is the contamination of the water source that it draws from.

This means that prior contamination, or the likelihood of contamination, near your well must be taken into account prior to drilling.

If you live near a farm, factory, industrial site, mine, major roadway, railroad or any other direct or secondary contributing factor to ground and water contamination a risk assessment is mandatory.

In some cases, the permit for your well might be denied, or your well could even be condemned if there is an accident that results in a spill of toxic chemicals or other material!

This, suffice to say, can be absolutely disastrous if you depend on your well. Because of this, it might be prudent to situate your well at a secondary site on your property that, even if it isn’t as efficient or more expensive, might be a better choice because of its reduced risk profile to direct contamination.

But of course, that won’t help you in the case of any major accident or catastrophe that results in deep contamination of aquifers and other sources that make up the water table.

Understand Your Water Use Needs and Perform a Technical Analysis Before You Embark!

Drilling a well can be surprisingly straightforward, or maddeningly complex. Although it is legal almost everywhere that a person can own property, the interfacing of legal and practical considerations can make for an excruciating undertaking.

And, not for nothing, you will be spending money at every step of the process the whole way.

Accordingly, before you embark on your journey to have a well-installed on your property you must check in with all of your municipal and county authorities and perform a thorough assessment of your property, the well operation and your water needs, both today and in the future.

Only by doing that can you avoid a costly and demoralizing boondoggle.

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