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Abandoned Water Wells

abandoned well at boy scout camp in Roscommon
Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Abandoned Water Wells

Dave DeYoung

Authority to conduct regulatory activities is established in the Public Health Code in Part 127, 1978 P.A. 368, as amended. EGLE conducts compliance and enforcement actions in cooperation with the State Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and through Local Health Departments (LHD). LHDs enforce abandoned well plugging requirements through field inspections and review of plugging records submitted by registered well drilling contractors and property owners.

What is an abandoned well?

The Groundwater Quality Control Act, Part 127, 1978 PA 368 defines an abandoned water well as a well which:

  • has its use permanently discontinued.
  • is in such disrepair that its continued use for obtaining groundwater is impractical.
  • has been left uncompleted.
  • is a threat to groundwater resources.
  • is or may be a health or safety hazard.

Abandoned wells can be found almost anywhere: on farms, industrial sites, and in urban areas. Those marked by windmill towers and old hand pumps are easy to spot. However, many of them are hidden beneath weeds and brush or are buried below grade.

The following are examples of abandoned wells that must be plugged:

  • Wells that are not operational.
  • Wells that are disconnected and taken out of service at the time connection is made to a municipal water system.
  • Any inoperable or abandoned well which is not properly sealed which can be a safety or environmental hazard.

Abandoned wells in Michigan

The construction of water wells in Michigan using drilling machines probably dates back to the early to mid-1800's. By the turn of the century, drilled wells of 1½ inch to 4 inch diameter steel casing were common throughout the state. Many early water wells were hand dug and lined with stone, brick, wood, or concrete. Historically, when household wells were taken out of service, they were abandoned without plugging. When a replacement well was needed, the water service line from the old well was often just severed. Sometimes the end of the water pipe was capped. On early wells, with windmills or hand pumps, the pump was often disconnected leaving the pump rods and plunger in the well. Some abandoned wells were filled with fieldstones and some drilled wells were merely capped by jamming something into the top. Occasionally, a municipal well was abandoned by shearing off the pump column, allowing it to drop to the well bottom. The pump motor was salvaged and a cover was placed over the well.

Well owners traditionally did not wish to spend money plugging a well, nor did they recognize the potential threat to their new water well. Some older wells were buried 4 to 5 feet to protect against freezing. Once they are abandoned, well locations can be easily forgotten. Vegetation grows around above grade casings obscuring their location.  Buried wells are not visible at all. When property with an abandoned well is sold, existence of the well is often unknown to the new landowner. Many reports of well casings being bulldozed during demolition or paved-over during road building projects have been received by state and county officials.

No one knows exactly how many unplugged abandoned wells exist in Michigan. The National Ground Water Association reports that Michigan leads the nation in the number of new wells drilled annually. It is quite likely that Michigan has more abandoned wells than any other state.

Estimates conducted by other states have shown from one to four abandoned wells for every five wells in service. Another projection is that one abandoned well exists for each generation a homesite has been occupied. The highest concentration of abandoned wells is expected to be in urban and suburban settings where municipal water has been extended into areas of dense housing concentration that were once served by on-site wells.

Abandoned unplugged wells

Unplugged abandoned wells can threaten the quality of drinking water from both private wells and those serving public water supply systems. It is estimated that over 2 million unplugged wells exist in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has implemented a comprehensive program to coordinate statewide abandoned water well plugging activities. Plugging abandoned water wells protects aquifers that supply drinking water to nearly one-half of Michigan's citizens. Proper well closure eliminates the risk of injury.

How to locate an abandoned well

  • Property owner
  • Previous owner(s)
  • Relatives or acquaintances who may know about the property
  • Neighbors (neighboring wells may give a clue as to well location, depth, etc.)
  • Contractors (well drillers, plumbers, builders) who have worked on the property
  • Inspectors (well, plumbing, building, septic system)
  • Current or former employees, maintenance personnel
  • Windmills or wishing wells
  • Casing visible above ground, concrete slab or basement floor
  • Small outbuildings (may be well house)
  • Circular ring in cement or patch in the floor
  • Basement offset (small room off of basement)
  • Patch in step or concrete (access for well below)
  • Pit in yard or basement
  • Manhole cover
  • Crock, brick or stone structures
  • Hand pump, hydrant, or faucet in yard
  • Waterline or patched hole through basement floor or wall
  • Water system components (pressure tank, pump, control box)
  • Damp circular depression in yard
  • Additions, false walls, access panels which may "hide" well
  • Old building sites recognizable by an old foundation
  • Ornamental shrubs, flowers, or trees outlining old, home or farm sites
  • Water Well Record or Water Well Plugging Record at local health department or EGLE
  • Water well or sewage disposal permits at local health department
  • City, township or county officials - zoning or building permits
  • Municipal water department - records on water line extensions to homes previously served by water wells
  • Old photographs of the property
  • Aerial photographs of the property (showing windmills, well houses)
  • County plat book, soils map, or topo map showing locations of buildings, roads
  • Owner's records (bills, deed easements) or information written on pressure tank, control box, etc.
  • Metal detector
  • Tape measure or "snake" to follow pipes
  • Digging equipment including shovels, hammers, chisels, backhoe
  • Magnetometer or electro-magnetic anomaly detectors (these are available through groundwater consultants)

Abandoned well frequently asked questions

  • A simple look around may help identify an abandoned well. A pipe sticking up out of the ground, a concrete slab or manhole cover, a ring of rocks or bricks, a hand pump or hydrant, a windmill, or an old shed may indicate the presence of an abandoned well. Some abandoned wells are difficult to find. They may be hidden among weeds or brush or may be buried below grade. A depression in the ground or a spot in the yard that is continually wet may provide clues to where an old well may be located.

  • You can contact your local health department, a registered well drilling contractor, your county soil conservation district, or the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy at 517-599-6257.

  • Costs vary depending upon the well depth, diameter, location, and other factors. A shallow driven well may be plugged for as little as $50. The average cost for plugging a well in Michigan is $500. Your costs may be reduced by having your old well plugged at the time the replacement well is drilled or at the time you connect to municipal water service.

  • Locate where the old water line exits the home or building. You can use either a metal detector to follow the line out or dig down and follow it to the well. Usually, older buried well casings are located 4 to 5 feet below grade, within 25 feet of the home. Neighbors or senior citizens who have lived in the area for a long time often know where old wells are located.

  • If the existing well is being used and functions properly, it is not required to be plugged at the time a replacement well is installed. However, if the existing well is not going to be used or if it is not operational and the owner does not intend to repair it, then the well must be properly plugged. If a well is going to be used in the future, but is temporarily taken out of service at the time a replacement well is installed, it must be securely sealed and must comply with all current isolation and construction requirements.

  • The well owner is responsible to plug the well or to arrange for a registered well drilling contractor to do so.

  • Well type and site geology determine the material requirements for plugging abandoned water wells. For example, flowing wells and wells that terminate in bedrock are required to be plugged with cement grout. Shallow, small diameter wells may be effectively plugged with bentonite chips. It is important to understand material requirements and plugging techniques before beginning a well plugging project.

  • Current regulations state that only the well owner or a registered well drilling contractor may plug a well. In addition, the well owner can plug the well only if it serves his/her residence. A registered well drilling contractor (or his/her employee) may plug a well at a residence, farm, industry, business, or other public water supply. It is recommended that well owners hire drilling contractors to plug their abandoned wells.  Contractors have the knowledge, experience, and equipment necessary to properly plug wells. 

  • If drop-pipes, pumps, packers, drawdown seals, or other similar obstructions are  left in the well, it will be much more difficult for the plugging material to reach the bottom of the well. Obstructions tend to cause "bridging" of the plugging material inside of the casing, resulting in an uneven or ineffective seal. Most well owners do not have the training or equipment to remove obstructions. We recommend that a registered well drilling contractor be contacted to do this type of work.