Plugging of Abandoned Wells

A picture of an old abandoned water supply well in desparate need of proper plugging.

One of the goals of Iowa's Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 was to prevent further contamination of the state's groundwater.

Un-needed, un-wanted and abandoned water wells can contribute to groundwater contamination and pose a hazard for our current drinking water supplies. This is because when water wells are not properly constructed, managed, maintained and then plugged at the end of their usefulness, they can act as a direct pathway for poor quality contaminated water to enter our drinking water aquifers. This bypasses the natural filtering process normally provided by the earthen materials above the aquifers and allows for contaminants present in surface water or shallow groundwater sources to be rapidly transported deeper into our drinking water supplies. Unsafe water can contain bacteria, parasites, viruses and chemical contamination – things that we need to avoid if we want to maintain good basic health.

One additional point to consider is that as aquifers become contaminated, the private and public well owners will need to install deeper, more costly wells or use expensive water treatment systems to ensure a safe supply of drinking water for homes, families, communities and farms - something that each well owner can help minimize through the use of basic well management strategies.

A note for property owners - Have you ever purchased a property that has one or more existing water wells? You may be surprised to find out that the liability of all abandoned wells on a property transfers with the property title. This means that if you have abandoned wells on your property, they can negatively impact the future value of a property if left unplugged. Unplugged abandoned wells are liabilities that potential buyers and lending institutions are suspicious of. In fact, each year many property transfers are delayed because of abandoned wells that are not properly plugged.

If you are selling a property that includes one or more water wells it is important for you to remember that all water supply wells, including abandoned wells must be accurately disclosed on the Groundwater Hazard Statement Form at the time a property is sold or transferred - it is the law.

Abandoned wells are a hazard to our drinking water supplies and pose a real safety hazard to people, animals and equipment or vehicles. Each year in our country, a number of individuals are injured or killed due to falling into old wells that should be properly plugged or wells that have been long forgotten. It is the responsibility of every property owner to ensure that their properties don't have any wells that pose a hazard to person or groundwater.

The definition for "abandoned well" states that any water supply well that is no longer in use, or is in such poor physical condition that it cannot be repaired and safely used" is classified as abandoned. Abandoned wells must be plugged or properly improved to eliminate the risk to the groundwater. This applies to all wells that tap into groundwater supplies - including private and public drinking water wells, monitoring wells, commercial water supply wells, crop and turf irrigation wells, temporary or permanent dewatering wells and also borings or test wells used to gather information on groundwater.

Performing the proper well services on abandoned wells is one thing that every property owner can do to protect the safety of their property and protect our valuable groundwater resource.

There are three options that a well owner can choose from to manage their abandoned wells. They can be properly plugged; adequately renovated and rehabilitated or serviced and repaired to return them to good operational condition; or tightly sealed at the well head and placed in standby condition. Each of these choices comes with specific work that must be done for the work to be considered conforming to statues, codes or rules.

  1. Well plugging. Well plugging is done by removing the pumping system, filling a well with fill and sealing materials and removal of the upper 4 feet of well casing. Once a well is properly plugged, there should be no further well safety issues or future threat to groundwater.
  2. Well rehabilitation or renovation. The type of work under this category increases the protections of the well and can include lining a well to repair a defective casing, renovating the well head to improve the surface protections, eliminating a frost pit that contains a well, or other repairs and modifications that improve the quality of the drinking water and add groundwater protections.
  3. Placing the well in standby status. Standby status means that the well is in overall good condition, maintains a sanitary condition, and does not exhibit any defects that places the groundwater at risk. Standby wells must have their pumps removed and an air and water tight cap installed to prevent possible localized contamination. This type of well not only protects the groundwater, but can be placed back in service once again with minimal work if needed in the future.

Any one of these options can normally allow the well to meet the goals of protecting the groundwater from contamination and address well related safety issues.

Sometimes the decision on what to do with an un-needed well is based on the economic fact that keeping the well is no longer cost effective. Renovating the well or placing the well in standby condition will cost money that will never be recovered when weighed against the future potential well use or water need. Under these circumstances the well must be properly plugged within 90 days of noting the well's condition.

When performing a well service like well plugging, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources requires that a certified water well contractor perform all plugging activity if the property owner does not do all of the work themselves. When a property owner chooses to perform their own well plugging, the property owner can not hire any labor for filling and sealing of the well portion of the work, they must follow all of the Iowa DNR well plugging rules, the local county environmental health office must verify the plugging procedures to ensure the well is plugged properly, and the well owner must submit a copy of the well plugging record form to the local county environmental health department or Iowa DNR.

The law that requires abandoned wells to be properly plugged is found in Iowa Code 455B.190 - "Abandoned wells properly plugged." The actual rules that prescribes how each well must be plugged are found in the Iowa Administrative Code 567 Chapter 39, "Requirements for Properly Plugging Abandoned Wells." You can view the law and rules regarding well plugging by viewing the documents available at the links above.

There is a grant program that may provide cost share reimbursement to help pay some of the cost associated with plugging your abandoned water supply well(s). The Grants-to-Counties Program is a program funded by the Groundwater Protection Act and administered by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Your local county environmental health office can provide additional information on how to qualify for this funding opportunity. All qualifying well services funded by the Grants-to-Counties cost share program must be approved by the county before any well services are initiated and the work must be performed by an Iowa DNR Certified Well Contractor. Contact your local county environmental health office for additional information.

When plugging a well, the property owner must complete form IDNR Form 542-1226 "Abandoned Water Well Plugging Record" and submit it to the local county environmental health office. This information will be logged into the Iowa DNR Private Well Tracking System.

To learn more about well plugging, please consider viewing the following publications:
Successfully Plugging Your Abandoned Well A publication by Iowa State University Extension Service
Guidelines for Plugging Abandoned Water Wells A publication by the Iowa DNR Geological and Water Survey.Plugging Abandoned Wells In Iowa An informational brochure by IDNR and IDPH.


- For more information contact -
Russell Tell, Environmental Specialist Senior
Wallace State Office Building
502 E. 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319-0034
(515) 725-0462 or by Fax: (515) 725-0348