Sometimes what's underground is as important as what's in your filing cabinet. Keeping good documentation of your well may come in handy on more than one occasion. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

The EPA estimates more than 23 million U.S. households rely on private wells for their water. That includes my home in rural northern Wisconsin. I live where glacial deposits that filter our groundwater and make it taste great also make well drilling a combination of science, skill, experience, and luck. One of our neighbors, for example, got good water at 70 feet. They were not so lucky when they put in a second well 300 feet away. That one had to be rotary drilled through bedrock almost 300 feet.

For what it costs to drill a well, you want to take good care of it. My husband and I are careful with our septic system, careful with how we use and/or dispose of chemicals, careful about how we mow around our well casing. Apparently, though, we are not as careful as we could be about our household filing system.

That became apparent this spring after we had our well water tested. Our county health department was running a public information campaign on testing. I couldn't remember the last time we had done that. So we waited for most of the snow to melt off the field behind our house, then collected two samples for testing – one for bacterial contamination (total coliform and E.coli), and one for nitrates. Happily, bacteria were absent, and nitrates were well below the “acceptable” level on the report the health department emailed us.

After printing out a copy of the report to keep on file the old-school way, I realized we had no file to put it in. We had no records at all about our well except for what was written in Sharpie on the cover of the submersible pump housing when the well hook-up was changed from our old farmhouse to the house we built in 2001: “49′ to water, 25′ of water.”

It felt like when my dad died and I needed to apply for Social Security survivor benefits for my mother: How did I not have a copy of their marriage certificate?

We have no immediate need for documentation about our well. We're not planning to sell our property. And I don't anticipate that the well will fail any time soon. But we didn't expect it last time, either.

Last time was, we thought, in 1988 or 1989 – or possibly 1990. The narrow band of groundwater we drew from just collapsed and one day we had no water.

What we remembered clearly was this happened right before gun deer season opened in Wisconsin. That's when a lot of people in Wisconsin head to deer camp and everything goes on hold for nine days while they play cribbage. We knew there was a good chance we would be without water for a couple of weeks. But we got lucky. The drilling crew showed up and got to work and found water about 10 feet deeper than the old well. By that Friday, the pump was installed, and we went on about our lives.

Thirty-some years later when I went to file a water test report, the only record we had of that was our memories. It was very cold (not helpful). The sound and vibration of the drilling on the other side of the wall where I was working (also not helpful). The name of the driller (retired).

So I went online to search through DNR well construction records. That search was complicated by the fact that our address back when the well was drilled was just “Star Route Highway 55.” We didn't get fire numbers until later, so searching by our current address didn't yield anything.

So I tried the Search By Map feature using our current address. That showed a pin right where our well should be. Except when I opened the document associated with that pin it wasn't us. The well constructor on the document was the one we used. The depth was close – 69 feet, although Bill thought ours was 71 feet. The reason for replacement was correct – “low yield of old well”. The date completed was 1989 but it was in April, not November. And the name and phone number on the document belonged to someone who used to own property on the other side of the road a quarter mile away.

I tried emailing the address given on the DNR site for corrections and questions about well construction reports. The automated reply I received thanked me for my inquiry but said I needed the Unique Well Number to make corrections, and I could find that using the Search Well Records utility. That was the online tool that pinned someone else's well at our location – not the Unique Well Number I needed.

I tried calling our county Land Records office. They told me to call the DNR office in Rhinelander and gave me a phone number that turned out to be disconnected. So I went trolling through the online DNR staff directory looking for someone who could answer questions about private water wells. Luckily, the person who got my voicemail forwarded it to someone else, and I hit the helpfulness jackpot.

That guy walked me through every step over the phone. First he used an address search to find the legal description of our property. We plugged in the section and range numbers to search DNR well construction records that way. Many of the older records returned were not associated with an address. We opened each of those records individually. I recognized many of the names on the scanned handwritten documents.

Ours was the last record on the list.

Turns out, our memories aren't so good. Our well was drilled in 1987, not '88, '89 or '90. Unique Well Numbers weren't used before 1988, but one was assigned to us when records were digitized.

Our well construction report was hand-written in triplicate (did we have carbonless forms then?). Maybe someday I will run across our copy (yellow) in a file. But I now have a printed copy of the scanned original and have noted the Unique Well Number at the top.

It's a good read, which my new friend at the DNR helped me interpret. “You have a nice gravel and clay layer there,” he said, which fairly made me beam with pride. That's between “sand + gravel” from the surface down 45 feet, and “sandy gravel” from 72 feet to 75 feet. He admired our 10 gallon-per-minute yield test, too.

I now know our depth of water level when pumping is 67 feet, and that he used a cable tool to drill our well. I also know our well is “terminated” at 8 inches above grade. Current standards say a well casing pipe should extend at least 12 inches above the finished ground surface and two feet above a floodplain. The top of our casing is exactly 12 inches.

Our well construction was completed on November 19, 1987. The driller sent our water sample for testing at Langlade Memorial Hospital on Friday, November 20, 1987.

And that's the last time I am sure it was tested. Until this spring.

That well is going on 36 years old now. Theoretically, it could be good for another 20 years or more. In 2001, a plumber installed a new controller and pressure tank when he changed the run from the old farmhouse to the new house we built on the same property. So those parts of our water system should be good for a long while, too.

But 36 years rolled by pretty fast. We took for granted the system we use to get water from underground to the faucet. But now that our well and pump are past theoretical middle age, I mean to test our water every year. According to the Wisconsin DNR, most bacteria are filtered out as rainwater or snowmelt seep through the soil. But several strains of bacteria can survive a long time and may find their way into the groundwater. Cracks in the well casing or an inadequate well cap or seal could compromise our water supply.

Here's something else I learned from that DNR site: Boiling water for a long time to kill any potential bacterial threat can reduce the volume of water enough to increase the concentration of any nitrate that may be present in the water. That could make the water more hazardous for infants, and I wouldn't want to drink it either.

So for my own peace of mind, we will test our water for bacteria and nitrates annually, after the snow melts. A deep snowpack that melts quickly when the ground is frozen can result in standing water deeper than our well cap is tall. If we lived where other flooding occurred I think I would test after any incidence of flooding. The DNR says bacteria, chemicals and other contaminants contained in floodwaters can enter the top of a well, seep down its casing, or migrate underground to your well via a neighbor’s flooded well.

I also need to be more careful mowing around our well. The last thing we need is to damage the well casing. I could do a better job of making sure snow doesn't pile up around the well cap, too. And recommends removing any vegetation with a root system from within 10 feet, so say goodbye to the brambles that keep trying to get a foothold there.

After we found our Unique Well Number, I reached out again to the DNR site that handles corrections and questions about well construction reports. This time, instead of an automated reply I received an email from an actual person. She wrote: “I've added the mailing & well address, your names & phone number, and the approx.: lat/long into the well construction record 8ER003. That will not be visible to the public (externally). The old scanned WCR (Well Construction Report) currently appears in our database and that will not change. However, the dot on the map will show up on your property at the lat/long you gave below.”

Plus, we now have an old-school household file for that well construction report and our annual water test reports.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.

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