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Water Wells and New Construction

Several utilities are needed to build a house; one of the most important is water.

If your lot is within the Urban Grow Boundary in Thurston County, the municipality will probably be providing water.  Outside of this area there maybe the possibility of being served by a community well or a private water system. Barring any of these options, you are going to need a private well.

One of the first issues that needs to be addressed is water rights-do you have the right to drill a well and use the water for domestic consumption. This is an entirely separate issue from whether or not there is water down there that you can pump.  Water rights are regulated and controlled by the State Department of the Ecology.  Be warned, they are not the least bit flexible in how they apply the rules. With the old rules, for every parcel of land you could withdraw up to 5,000 gals a day.  This is actually enough water for six homes.  Water rights were generally not a problem for home builders. Recently however, there has been a State court decision called “The Hirst Decision”.  In response to this the State enacted a new streamflow restoration plan.  This basically says that if a ground water withdrawal will affect surface stream flows it can’t be allowed and the building permit cannot be approved.  Thurston county has dealt with this by setting different water withdrawal limits for various areas of the county.  This is based on their hydrology studies.  As far as I know, all of the areas allow at least enough water for one single family residence.  In addition to this, they added a 500 fee for all new wells.  So at this point all you have to do is write the check and you are good to go.  This will probably change in the future because this is a very dynamic situation. It is a great example of how the constantly increasing regulatory situation is making building more complex and expensive.

The more practical aspect of water availability is whether there is actually water that can be accessed.  A lot of information on this can be gained by looking at water well logs for nearby properties.  This can also give you an idea of what it might cost to drill the well.  If the neighboring properties have water at a certain level, you probably do too.  A well driller can give you a cost estimate based on this information.  Keep in mind though, drilling a well is always a gamble. You could have to drill much deeper than you planned and there is a real possibility that you may not get any water at all.

The first step in drilling a well is locating it.

It must be 100’ away from the septic system and the property line.  On a smaller lot this can be a big problem.  There is often not enough room for the septic system the house and the well radius.  One way of dealing with this is to get a protective covenant from your neighbor.  Basically, they agree not to put any part of their septic system within 100’ of your well.  They are actually required not to do this for existing wells. Getting them to agree to this for a new well will probably require you to pay them a fair amount of money.  In my experience, most people are reluctant to do this and this solution is not possible.  It can be helpful when subdividing land though.  The well covenants can be set up while the same person owns all of the parcels.  If you can’t setup the 100’ radius, there is also the possibility that this can be reduced to 50’ under certain circumstances.  Barring this, the lot could simply be unbuildable.

For a single family well, you would like to have around 7-8 gals of water per minute.  You can get by with less though.  If you have as little as 1-2 gals per minute you can do storage and make the work for domestic needs.  This requires a large storage tank, a well house and another pump.  This is rather expensive but if it solves the water problem it may be worth it.

If you have enough quantity, the other question is quality.

This is a matter of clarity and taste. It is quite common to have iron, manganese or some other metal in well water in this area.  This can normally be treated.  I recently installed a treatment system for arsenic.  So almost any water quality problem can be fixed. It can be expensive though.  And it also involves a lot of periodic maintenance.

The way that the county regulates water quantity and quality is that they require a certification of water availability (COWA). In order to get this you need to provide a well log and a test for nitrates and coliform bacteria.   I have attached a sample of both.  The well log shows the depth of the well.  The types of material that was drilled through, the gals per minute of the pump test, the static level and the drawdown.  The two water quality tests are for things that can be dangerous to health and not clarity and taste so you may want to do more testing.  Once you turn in the well log and water tests, the county and State Department of Health will hopefully approve them and issue the COWA.  This document is needed before they will issue your building permit.

Since you must have the COWA to get the building permit and the cost of the well can be a big variable and there is a possibility of not getting drinking water, it raises an interesting question when you are buying a lot.  Who pays for the well.  Ideally a buyer would like the seller to drill the well and roll it into the price of the lot.  A lot of seller may not want to do this if they are not 100% sure the lot will close. They may simply not have the money also. So the responsibility for drilling the well often falls on the buyer.  There are a couple of options in this case.  You can do as much research as possible and buy the lot if it looks probable that you will get water at a reasonable cost after you purchase the lot. The other option is to drill the well before you close on the lot.  In this case you would be paying for a well on a lot that you don’t own.  This may make sense if you are covered legally. If you drill the well and it won’t work, you’ll have to pay for it.  But it is better to pay 10,000 for a well you can’t use than to pay 100,000 for a lot that you can’t get water for.

Water wells are one of the most difficult and expensive aspects of the preliminary building process.  If you have any questions about this, give me a call.

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