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The Secret Life Of Well Water: Tips For Private Well Owners

having a private well

Over 15 million households in the US rely on groundwater or well water as their primary source of drinking water. Rural farms, ranches, remote wilderness resorts and homes in remote, undeveloped communities are often too far away from a city water supply. Wells that serve a maximum of 25 people at least 60 days of the year and have no more than 15 service connections fall outside of EPA jurisdiction, placing the burden of maintaining healthy water entirely on the owner.

So, if you’re wondering can well water make you sick, or is well water safe, be assured that properly monitored and treated well water can actually be safer than municipal tap water. But since the water in a private well is more exposed than the water distributed by a city water supply, preventing bacterial growth and other forms of contamination will be up to you. 

How Does Well Water Work?

Well Water comes straight from the ground. Well drillers drill down to the aquifer, which is an underground layer of permeable rock containing water. Then, a pump system is installed to carry the water up from the ground and into your home. If you spend significant time in a remote location or are considering property in an area that relies on well water, you’ll need to weigh very carefully before deciding.


  • Well water is self replenishing
  • Well water is free.
  • The annual cost of treating and testing well water is cheaper than city water supply.
  • Well water is naturally healthier and typically untreated with chlorine or fluoride.
  • Can be a safe alternative in the case of a national emergency


  • Contaminated well water can be costly to treat.
  • Adequate supplies of groundwater can be difficult to source
  • Regular testing is required
  • Well water source may be untreatable and need to be abandoned, leaving you stranded.

Siting A Well: Choosing Your Location

Positioning or locating a well source is the first crucial step to preventing contamination. A well should be positioned a safe distance from any potential hazard sources. A safe, healthy well supply requires 4 basic elements to minimize the risk of contamination:

  • Proper construction
  • Groundwater protection
  • Regular maintenance
  • Regular water testing and treatment as required

Before you dig your well, however, you’ll want to choose somewhere on your property that is safely removed from any source of contamination. The CDC recommends the following precautions for locating a well:

CDC Recommended Distances For Locating A Well Or Groundwater Source [1]

Source of ContaminationRecommended Safe Distance
Manure stacks250 feet from any well or groundwater source
Livestock yards, Silos, Septic Leach FieldsMinimum 50 feet from any well or groundwater source
Septic TanksMinimum 50 feet from any well or groundwater source
Petroleum Tanks, Liquid-Tight Manure Storage and Fertilizer Storage and Handling100 feet from any well or groundwater source

Common Causes Of Contaminants In Well Water Or Groundwater

  • Local land use: Intense agriculture practices (fertilizers and pesticides)
  • Microbial: Fecal contamination from feedlots
  • Naturally-occurring contaminants: High concentrations of elements such as arsenic and radon may be naturally present in the local geology
  • Septic Tank Overflow: Problems with the integrity of nearby on-site septic systems

What Is Groundwater?

Hidden as far as 30,000 feet beneath the surface of the earth are stores of water. The typical household well can reach these pockets of water usually at around 100 – 200 feet. The water passes very slowly over sediment, soil and porous rocks called aquifiers, absorbing healthy minerals along the way.

Groundwater exists in three layers:

  1. Vadose Zone: Upper layer closest to the soil
  2. Capillary Zone: Water seeps past the soil into this intermediary zone
  3. Saturated Zone: Groundwater proper

The following explanation of the Vadose zone of groundwater elaborates in more detail:

“Water beneath the surface can essentially be divided into three zones:1) the soil water zone, or vadose zone, 2) an intermediate zone, or capillary fringe,and 3) the groundwater, or saturated zone. The top two zones, the vadose zone and capillary fringe, can be grouped into the zone of aeration, where during the year air occupies the pore spaces between earth materials. Sometimes, especially during times of high rainfall, those pore spaces are filled with water[2].”

How Do You Find Groundwater For A Well

Although groundwater is constantly replenished by rain, it isn’t distributed in even quantities across all climates. Seasons, climate, geology, local flora, as well as human activity can all impact the availability of adequate groundwater.

A hydrologist is a professional experienced in locating groundwater [3]. A potential target area needs to be thoroughly tested and studied to identify hydrologic and geologic features important to the planning and management of the resource. Usually, there are a few clues that can signal the presence of groundwater, but the sufficiency and adequacy of the supply require further investigation.

The presence of springs, streams, swamps, lakes and water-loving plants (cottonwoods, willows) are a good indication of groundwater. Valleys and hills also can be a potential repository for shallow stores of groundwater

Local geology can also give clues to the presence of groundwater. At only 5% of the earth’s crust, gravel, sand, sandstone, and limestone are among the best aquifers. These porous types of rock are permeable and are easily replenished after a rainfall, making them the perfect location for quality groundwater.

How To Find A Hydrologist

A freelance hydrologist can be found with a simple Google search, and there are a surprising number available. In fact, the US Dept of Labor and Statistics estimates a 7% employment growth for hydrologists between 2018 – 2028 . To be sure, the need for quality drinking water will have reached crisis levels in many cities by then. Years before you’re ready to retire, you may find yourself calling around for a hydrologist to help you locate groundwater for your family in the future.

Interestingly enough, hydrology isn’t an accredited vocation. The practitioners who are referred to as hydrologists cover a wide range of roles. Some are highly specialized and focused on one aspect of locating groundwater. Others have more experience and expertise. What many of them do have in common is an engineering background, which is useful for understanding the challenges of digging and testing for groundwater.

At the last count, 28% of hydrologists were employed by the Geological Survey Department and Federal Defense Department [4]. Another 21% were employed by state agencies and departments of conservation. Highly experienced hydrologists can earn a six-figure income as consultants for private firms, while entry level positions start at around $35,000 annually.

Testing Well Water Quality

Even with the necessary precautions, a well constructed well and regular monitoring, your well water can become polluted at any time. To test your well water, you can either purchase a quality water test kit or hire the professional services of a local water laboratory.

Some of the most common contaminants in well water or groundwater include:

1. Nitrate: Like pH, nitrate is found naturally in the environment, including food. Excessive levels of nitrate in drinking water can lead to sickness. Avoid proximity to animal waste, private septic systems, wastewater, flooded sewers, polluted stormwater runoff, fertilizers, agricultural runoff, and decaying plants.

2. Fecal Coliforms: Fecal coliform is a specific strain of total coliform that is found in feces of both animals and humans. It is also found in the digestive system of all warm-blooded animals. Harmful side effects can include Escherichia coli (E. coli), diarrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis.

3.Total Coliforms: Test regularly for Coliform bacteria, which can quickly develop into germs or parasites. Coliform are microbes found in the digestive systems of warm-blooded animals, soil, plants, and in surface water. These microbes are usually harmless but the harmful ones can be difficult to detect in water, which is why “total coliforms” are tested instead.

4. pH: Also referred to as alkaline or acidity, pH is found naturally in water. A pH test tells you how acidic or basic your water is. The pH level of the water can change the taste and appearance of your well water. High levels of pH can corrode metal, while acidity (low levels) can make you sick with prolonged consumption.

5. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): VOCs are industrial and fuel-related chemicals that can be harmful to your health. Benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, trichloroethylene, and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) are some of the different types you can test for. Your local or state environmental department should have information on any potential VOC’s in your target zone. You can also contact the EPA.


Switching from a city water supply to groundwater is a major lifestyle change that can be incredibly rewarding if you’re properly prepared. Research your options and scrutinize your well location thoroughly before committing time and money into drilling. If you already own a well or inherited one, do yourself a favor by regularly testing your well water for contamination.

Happy drinking!

[1] Well Siting And Potential Contaminants (Center For Disease Control And Prevention)
[2] Ground Water (PDF)
[3] How Do Hydrologists Locate Groundwater? (
[4] Hiring in Hydrology Resists the Slump (New York Times)

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