State, county officials make push to plug abandoned wells

Old sites can be safety hazard, or contaminate water supply

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Every year, more wells are dug in Iowa than are plugged, increasing exposure of the state’s groundwater supply as the number of holes in the ground grows.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know how many wells are abandoned as new ones emerge, but state and local public health officials know they exist, and they’re urging Iowans to plug old wells no longer in use.

“The overall goal is to increase the number of wells being plugged every year,” said Russell Tell, environmental specialist senior with Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Statewide, 2,514 construction permits for new wells were issued during the 12-month period between Dec. 18, 2011, and Dec. 18, 2012, according to DNR statistics. During that same period, 1,716 wells were plugged.

And the number of new well permits is on the rise, climbing to more than 2,500 this year from 1,889 during that same 12-month period ending Dec. 18, 2010. The number of plugged wells, conversely, is on the decline, falling from 2,018 in 2011 to just over 1,700 this year, according to DNR statistics.

Tell said about 5 percent of the wells that are plugged every year are not reported, meaning the numbers are slightly higher than they appear. Still, he said, plugging abandoned wells is imperative to protecting the state’s water resources, and he’d like to see that number increase.

Corking unused wells also eliminates hazards for livestock or people who might fall in. And, Tell said, it’s the law. Iowa Code mandates property owners to plug wells abandoned after April 25, 1990, within 90 days.

“Unfortunately, there is no enforcement arm that goes out to check if all the wells have been plugged,” he said. “We do rely on the honesty of citizens.”

The state has a financial-aid program aimed at encouraging residents to safely abandon wells by offering them grant money. Those grants are distributed through county public health departments.

Johnson County Public Health is plugging more wells than it has in recent years — it completed 23 in the 2012 budget year compared with 16 in the 2009 budget year. Linn County Public Health, through the grant program, is plugging fewer wells than it has in recent years, with 23 in the 2012 budget year compared with 27 in 2009 and 50 in 2007.

Health, safety worries

Heidi Peck, environmental quality supervisor for Linn County, said her department is trying to increase its advertising and awareness of the program so more people sign up to get aid to plug wells.

“People are injured or have livestock that are injured every year because people forget a well is there,” Peck said. “So we want people to use this money. It’s free money.”

Applicants can get up to $400 to plug a well and up to $600 to rehabilitate a well, Peck said.

“And the fewer holes we have in the earth,” she said, “the more protected our drinking supply is.”

James Lacina, environmental health coordinator for Johnson County Public Health, said officials have specific concerns about bacteria and nitrates from fertilizer and farm chemicals seeping into unplugged wells.

“They are a direct conduit to our drinking water aquifers,” Lacina said.

And in Johnson County, he said, the number of abandoned wells is increasing as the rural landscape shifts.

“Some of the family farms are disappearing,” he said. “And we are ending up with more abandoned wells than we used to have as rural communities shrink.”

The state’s well-plugging grant program is funded through Iowa’s pesticide tax, Lacina said. A portion of the revenue from that tax is distributed among the 98 Iowa counties that participate, Lacina said.

But the grants that are doled out to individual landowners don’t always cover the complete cost of plugging a well, Lacina said. And, he said, if county officials identify a well that needs plugging, but the landowner won’t pay for it or can’t afford it, the county’s health nuisance program might step in.

Homeowners also are allowed to plug their own wells, Lacina said, but they’re mostly corked by certified well-pluggers. Lacina said the professionals commonly start by pulling out the pump wiring and braces, filling the well with a clay material, capping it off four feet below ground and filling the rest with dirt.

Butch Kasparek, owner of Novotny and Son Well Service in Swisher, said his business is busy but, as a member of the Iowa Water Well Association, he and his peers have been trying to spread the word about the importance of plugging abandoned wells — especially since the floods of 2008 and 2010.

Because the generation of landowners that drilled Iowa’s first wells is gone, it’s hard to know how many wells remain unplugged, Kasparek said.

“There could be a good number that are not plugged,” he said. “Not knowing all of the farmsteads and how they were laid out, there could be old wells in the middle of fields that we don’t know about.”

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