Plugging of Abandoned Wells

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

The term "abandoned well" means a water well which is no longer in use or which is in such state of disrepair that continued use for the purpose of accessing water is unsafe or impractical.

Plugging of abandoned wells is one of the key commitments of the Iowa's Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 as a means to help prevent further contamination of the state's groundwater.

Abandoned wells are a hazard. 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 these wells are not properly plugged, they can act as a direct pathway for contaminated water to enter our drinking water aquifers. The direct pathways caused by the well bypasses the natural filtering process normally provided by the earthen materials above the aquifers. This allows contaminants present in surface water or shallow groundwater to be rapidly transported deeper into our drinking water aquifers. Surface water and shallow groundwater can contain bacteria, parasites, viruses and chemical contamination – things that we need to avoid if we want to maintain good basic health.

The cost of having abandoned wells. There is a cost that can be attributed to not properly plugging wells. When aquifers become contaminated, the private and public well owners will need to use expensive water treatment systems to make the water potable, or construct deeper, more costly wells to tap known safe aquifers. These extra expenses can be minimized if every well owner uses some basic well management strategies that include plugging of old or un-needed wells.

If your buying or selling property that have one or more wells. Have you ever purchased or sold a property that has one or more existing water wells? You may be surprised to find out that the liability of all wells on a property transfers with the property title - even when the buyer does not know the wells exist. This means that if you purchase a property that has one or more wells, you assume all responsibility to ensure that the wells are properly managed.

How abandoned wells affect your property value. Abandoned wells can reduce the value of a property and should be considered liabilities that raise suspicions with potential buyers and lending institutions. In fact, each year many property transfers are delayed because of abandoned wells. Wells are found very close to the proposed closing date which creates a new round of negotiations as buyer and seller work to settle how the well plugging will be managed.

Buying or selling a property that includes one or more wells. If you are selling a property that includes one or more water wells, it's important for you to remember that all water supply wells - including abandoned and plugged 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 liability and safety hazard. Abandoned wells are not only a hazard to our drinking water supplies, they also 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 have been long forgotten and fallen out of repair. It's the responsibility of every property owner to ensure that their wells are properly maintained or properly plugged.

Types of wells that can meet the definition of "abandoned well". The definition for "abandoned well" can apply to all types of wells that tap into groundwater supplies - this includes 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.

Your options when you have an abandoned well. Performing the proper well services on abandoned wells is one thing that every well owner can do to protect the safety of their property and protect the valuable groundwater resource.

There are three options that a well owner can choose from to manage their abandoned water supply 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 and other well obstructions, filling a well with layers of clean fill and sealing materials, removing the upper 4 feet of well casing, and removal of the well pit, pump platform, or at grade well curbing or structure. Once a well is properly plugged, there should be no further well safety issues or future threat to groundwater and the area can be used for purposes.
  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 to the well or well area that improve the quality of the drinking water and increase 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 contamination. Placing a well in standby state not only protects the groundwater, but it means the well can be placed back in service again at a later date with minimal effort.

Any one of these options will normally allow the well to meet the goals of protecting the groundwater from contamination and address well related safety issues. Please note that if you have an ag drainage well, there are also other regulations that must be followed.

The cost of keeping unneeded wells. Sometimes the decision on what to do with an un-needed well is based on the reality that maintaining and keeping the well isn't cost effective. Renovating the well or placing the well in standby condition will cost more money than the property owner can justify spending because they may never use the well again. Under these circumstances the well must be properly plugged within 90 days of first noting the well's condition.

Who can perform well plugging. 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. Below are links for lists of certified well contractors.

Iowa DNR Certified Well Drillers can plug all types of water wells and water storage cisterns.

Iowa DNR Certified Pump Installers can plug all types of water wells and water storage cisterns.

Iowa DNR Certified Well Pluggers are limited in the wells they can plug.  They can only plug large diameter bored or hand-dug wells, very small diameter shallow driven wells, and water storage cisterns. They cannot plug any drilled wells.

When a property owner chooses to perform their own well plugging, the property owner:

  • cannot hire any labor for to perform the filling and sealing of the well portion of the work; they must perform all plugging operations themselves,
  • must follow all of the Iowa DNR Chapter 39 well plugging rules,
  • must contact the local county environmental health office so the local well specialist can verify the plugging procedures to ensure the well is properly plugged, and
  • must submit a copy of the well plugging record form to the local county environmental health department or Iowa DNR.

The Law that requires well plugging. 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.

Cost share assistance may be available for plugging wells. 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. 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 plugging work must be performed by an Iowa DNR Certified Well Contractor. You can contact your local county environmental health office for additional information.

Well plugging record form required. 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.

Learn more about well plugging. 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.
Plugging Ag Drainage Wells  A web page from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
The Status of Plugging Ag Drainage Wells  A web page from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship


- 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
russell.tell@dnr.iowa.gov