Is It Legal to Drill Your Own Well?

In the latest years, many homeowners prefer having a well to using city waters. If this is something you wonder about, you likely also want to know is it legal to drill your own well, or do you have to move to a house with a preexisting one.

When you live in a city or even a small town, there are many legalities about what you can and cannot do with your property. While this is your home, some DIY projects might cause harm to the rest of the community, which is why they have to be regulated by law.

So what about wells? Is it legal to drill your own well, or do you require special permits?

While the law might depend from state to state, we’ll try to give you the best possible overview so you can know what to expect.

Is It Legal to Drill Your Own Well?

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In general, it is likely legal for you to drill your own well. However, you would have to research your own state regulations and contact your building department to check whether there are any permits that might be required. The same applies to any repair that might require you to disrupt public property, such as replacing a sewer line from the house to the street.

Your best option would be to contact local authorities and check is it legal to drill your own well with them, as they’re the ones that know all regulations.

Most of the time, though, this is something that is regulated on the state level. Each state has its own rules, and the regulations might even depend on the type of well and ground.

For example, if you wonder is it legal to drill your own well in Florida, you’ll need to possess a license, unless your well is less than two inches in diameter.

  • On some locations, you’ll need to drill deep into the sandy gravel – sometimes as deep as several hundred feet. This project requires special regulations, but it’s the purest type of water you can get.
  • On other locations, the water is rather shallow, and putting a well on your property might be fairly easy both legally and practically.
  • If you live in densely populated areas, the groundwater might be contaminated, and digging a well might not be recommended, or you might be required to install special filters.

In fact, you might not be able to drill well on your property, at all! Some locations simply don’t have a supply of fresh water that you might reach, or you might not be able to get enough water flow. This can result in low water pressure on the well.

As such, some regulations might also depend on your situation and the condition of your property.

Groundwater Laws and Regulations

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As you can see, talking about water sources and wells is a fairly wide topic that is impossible to cover with just one law. This is why there are various groundwater rights in different regions.

Groundwater regulations are very different from regulations concerning rainwater or surface water. Things get even trickier if the well has to be dug outside of your property borders. It can be challenging to determine who has the right on groundwater, and how deep your property goes.[1]

This is one of the reasons why it is so confusing to get a clear answer to the people wondering Is it legal to drill your own well?

Five Groundwater Doctrines

To make things easier, groundwater laws are regulated by five doctrines:

  • The doctrine of reasonable use.
  • The doctrine of absolute dominion.
  • The doctrine of prior appropriation.
  • The doctrine of restatement of torts.
  • The doctrine of correlative rights.

We’ll explain all in greater detail, so you can understand the general rules regarding wells.

The Doctrine of Reasonable Use

This doctrine is also called the “American Rule”. It allows all property owners to access the groundwater located under their property, as long as they use it reasonably. In other words, you are allowed to use groundwater, but in such a way that you won’t affect the rights of people who have access to the same water source.

This doctrine can be confusing, as not all states consider the same things to be reasonable. In general, this means you can use the water as long as you’re not wasting it. [2]

This usually means you can use the water for most common uses, such as indoor use, gardening, or use for your livestock. However, if the water access is limited, you shouldn’t use it to fill in pools or to wash your car.

 

Some states that follow this doctrine include:

  • Alabama.
  • Arizona.
  • Arkansas.
  • Delaware.
  • Florida.
  • Illinois.
  • Kentucky.
  • Maryland.
  • Michigan.
  • Missouri.
  • New jersey.
  • New York.
  • North Carolina.
  • Oklahoma.
  • Pennsylvania.
  • Virginia.

 

The Doctrine of Absolute Dominion

This doctrine is known as the “English Rule”. It allows the property owner to use as much water as they’d like from the well on their property, no matter how it will impact other people who might want to use it, as well.

This doctrine is great for well owners that use powerful pumping systems, as they don’t have any exact restrictions on the amount of water they can pump.

Many states have abandoned this doctrine as it is considered insensitive. However, some states that still use it are:

  • Connecticut.
  • Georgia.
  • Indiana.
  • Louisiana.
  • Maine.
  • Minnesota.
  • Massachusetts.
  • Mississippi.
  • Rhode Island.
  • Texas.
  • Vermont.

The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation

This is one of the oldest doctrines in the U.S. Also known as the “first come, first serve” rule, it means that the first property owner that accessed the groundwater now has primary rights to use it.

This doctrine was first established in the 19th century and has now mostly been abandoned. However, some states still follow it, such as:

  • Alaska.
  • Colorado.
  • Idaho.
  • Kansas.
  • Nevada.
  • New Mexico.
  • Oregon.
  • Utah.
  • Washington.
  • Wyoming.

The Doctrine of Restatement of Torts

This is a fairly new doctrine that is between the Reasonable Use and Absolute Dominion doctrines. It states that the homeowner who is using the well water can use it as much as they need to, as long as they don’t take too much water from a single source.

The only states that follow this doctrine are:

  • Michigan.
  • Ohio.
  • Wisconsin.

 

The Doctrine of Correlative Rights

According to this doctrine, all homeowners that wish to access groundwater have equal access to it, and this is something that needs to be determined by courts.

The Doctrine of Correlative Rights is usually used in states where water is scarce, so the court must help people use it equally.

These states are:

  • Arkansas.
  • California.
  • Iowa.
  • Minnesota.
  • Oklahoma.
  • Vermont.
  • Nebraska.

What Doctrines Are in Your State?

 

Even the doctrines aren’t used in the same way in the states that oblige by them. It all comes down to the amount of water available and to your municipality.

The regulations regarding well and water use commonly depend on the local topography. Two U.S. coasts, for example, have very different climates and underground water. As the result, Western states, which don’t have that much water, have more strict regulations compared to Eastern states.

If you’d like to know what type of doctrine is at the strength in your state, you can always contact the authorities.

One way to stay safe regardless is to follow the Doctrine of Reasonable Use, as all states will allow this. If you use the water located under your property in such a way that you aren’t causing troubles for other potential users, you will most likely be entirely fine legally. This doctrine is in compliance with almost all state laws.

What You Might Need

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In general, whether you are trying to drill your own well through rock or to fix brown well water, when working with groundwater you might need to check for some permits and papers. Some documentation is issued on the state level, others are more local.

Here is a list of some documentation you might need:

  • Permit – A temporary authorization issued from the county or state agency. This will allow you to dig a well, as long as you follow some specific guidelines. You’ll need a state permit almost all the time, but sometimes you might be required to get a special permit from a local municipality. To get a permit, you’ll need to state what type of well do you plan to dig and for what purpose. You usually need to apply to your state’s Environmental Quality or Water Resources department for a permit.
  • License – A license isn’t the same as a permit. While a homeowner gets a permit, the contractor needs to have a license. Otherwise, they won’t be able to do their job legally – and most of the time, in a proper manner. License is required due to some special precautionary measures that might be requested when digging a well. As such, it would be wise to always contact a licensed well contractor for this task.
  • Water Rights – This document isn’t mandatory in all states. However, if you live in states that follow the Doctrine of Absolute Dominion and Prior Appropriation, you’ll need to purchase water rights in order to dig or drill a well. It’s important to note that not all properties will come with water rights, so this is something you’ll need to double-check. Also, not all rights will be up for purchase – some will have to be grandfathered in.

The Costs of Drilling a Well

Next to Is it legal to drill your own well?, you are probably wondering how expensive is it to drill it, and whether this will pay off.

Drilling a well isn’t affordable, and as the price can vary depending on many factors, it’s challenging to give an estimation.

In general, the main factors that affect the price are the well’s depth and how deep the well is. However, if you need to drill through rocky surfaces or if the terrain is hard to reach, the prices might be even higher.

Also, you need to understand that some permits and water rights require a fee to get. While this fee isn’t a lot, it’ll still influence how much money you’ll have to pay to build the well.

Is Drilling Your Own Well Worth It?

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Whether or not digging your own well will be worth it purely depends on you and your own needs. Getting a permit isn’t always easy, and this task can be quite costly. In fact, instead of wondering is it legal to drill your own well, you might want to start calculating the price and checking out whether this is something that pays off.

In general, drilling a well can be worth it if you want to offset some of the city’s supply water, or if you don’t have access to the city’s water at all. Also, they are very much worth it if the water is pure and clean. If you live in the city, groundwater will likely be used for outdoor projects only – something that you aren’t likely to have a lot of in the city anyway.

As such, you need to consider your own situation and think about whether you truly need the well or not. Calculate all the benefits and downsides and make an estimation. Every person has unique living conditions, and as such only you can know whether the well will pay off.

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