Understanding private well legislation & treatment opportunities across the U.S.

May 12, 2023
The U.S. EPA has a limited role in regulating private wells as many states have their own regulations for private wells, but the regulations vary widely from state to state.

Water Systems 

Small drinking water systems are the backbone of America and a vital part of America's infrastructure, serving as a lifeline to many communities across the country. Upwards of 15% of the U.S. population relies on private wells; some of these systems may contain harmful drinking water contaminants. Legislative actions at the state and federal levels (such as The Healthy H2O Act) have renewed focus on testing and treating and are taking action to reduce health-based contaminants in potable water from private wells.    

Under U.S. law, a public water system (PWS) is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The SDWA requires a PWS to meet certain standards for contaminants, and it also requires the system to provide information to the public about the quality of the water they are providing (such as the annual Consumer Confidence Reports). However, private wells are not subject to the same regulations, and it is the responsibility of the well owner to ensure the safety and quality of the water they are using. 

The EPA has a limited role in regulating private wells. Many states have their own regulations for private wells, but the regulations vary widely from state to state. Some states have mandatory testing and inspection programs, while others have no regulations at all. In states with no regulations, it is up to the well owner to test their water and take steps to address any issues with water quality or safety.  

Private Wells 

The EPA estimates more than 23 million households rely on private wells for drinking water. 1,2 Unlike a PWS, private wells fall outside federal regulations and are not covered by the SDWA, exempting them from the periodic testing and monitoring requirements for PWS. There are considerable efforts by federal and state governments to support safe practices when accessing private drinking water systems.  

Federal Actions 

Although the U.S. EPA does not have authority over private wells, there are federal programs to help support safe access to drinking water from unregulated systems. The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide information for homeowners regarding the maintenance and care of private wells to protect their health. The EPA website focuses strictly on educating well owners on wells, groundwater, and information on protecting their health.  

However, the EPA does provide some guidance and assistance to states on private well regulation through their Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. This program regulates the construction and operation of wells that inject fluid underground for the purpose of storage or disposal but does not regulate the water that is pumped from private wells for drinking water. 

The CDC also supports state health departments mitigating harmful exposure from private wells through its safe Water Community Health (Safe Water Program), encouraging health departments to identify gaps in their current programs to improve and strengthen their programs. Additional information about maintenance and water testing is available on the Healthy Water’s Well Testing and Private Wells web pages.  

 Chart

Small systems and communities that rely on private wells are common across the United States. Each state has its own variation of a private well program, but those laws are geographically inconsistent. 

Some states, like New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, have laws that require regular testing, inspection and maintenance of private wells. Other states, like California, Colorado and Florida, have regular testing programs but do not have mandatory inspection and maintenance. For example, California requires that a well be constructed under the guidance of a licensed well driller and that it be constructed in compliance with standards established by the state. It also requires that a water well be tested for bacteria and nitrate, prior to being put into service and annually thereafter. 

In states like Alaska and Arizona, the state government has provided guidelines and recommendations for private well owners, but there is no mandatory testing or inspection program. Additionally, many states have specific regulations for certain types of private wells, such as those used for irrigation or those that have the potential to contaminate underground sources of drinking water. It is important to note that the laws, regulations and requirements for private wells change over time, so it is best to check with the state's official website or local health department for the most up-to-date information. The EPA has a list of Private Drinking Water Well Programs by each state, which is a useful tool when navigating regulatory requirements.   

In light of these gaps in regulatory oversight at the federal and state level, there has been a significant influx of legislation centered on private wells and allocating funding for grant programs to support testing and treatment.  

 Policy Spotlight – State Legislation 

MA H 2197/SB 1356 – An Act to protect Massachusetts public health from PFAS. Would establish the PFAS Remediation Trust Fund to mitigate the impacts of PFAS contamination in drinking water, and groundwater including private well owners. Eligible funding would include the use of POU and POE systems.  

NY A 6332/S 2238 – Would provide for a personal income tax deduction for certain well water testing through a tax rebate for potable well water testing up to $600.  

NY A 5979/S 1650 – Amends the Private Well Testing Act and requires the testing of private wells. The bill also provides full reimbursement for water quality testing and the implementation of any treatment. This would also require a variety of drinking water contaminants to be tested including microbials, organic chemicals, and PFAS.  

WI SB 58 – This bill expands eligibility for nitrate-contaminated wells under the well compensation grant program. Eligible uses of the grant program include the use of reverse osmosis (RO) or similar methods prior to well remediation methods.  

NC HB 660 – PFAS Free NC; amends the North Carolina law on the prohibition of PFAS within the state and expands the scope of the legislation to address contamination. The bill would appropriate $5 million in nonrecurring funds for the FY 2023-2024 to the Bernard Allen Drinking Water Fund to fund drinking water treatment systems for individuals, businesses and community water systems with covered wells contaminated with PFOA above 12 ppt, PFOS above 13 ppt, PFNA above 11 ppt, PFHxS above 18 ppt, or above 20 ppt for the sum of all detectable PFAS. 

These bills are a few of several state-level efforts to address private well contamination with a specific focus on PFAS contamination.  

Federal Policy Highlight – The Healthy H2O Act 

S. 806 /H.R. 1721 – The Healthy H2O Act is federal legislation that looks to address the historical disinvestment in drinking water in rural communities. This bill would provide grants directly to an individual to conduct water quality testing and the purchase, installation, and maintenance of third-party certified POU or POE water treatment systems that remove or reduce health-based contaminants from drinking water.  

Smaller communities with limited financial resources may often be put in a difficult decision. The Healthy H2O Act and other state actions embody a cost-effective method to address drinking water contaminants in rural communities by providing a more affordable and easier-to-maintain system than traditional centralized water treatment plants. Increasing access to drinking water solutions including testing and tools like third-party certified water filtration systems can play a crucial role in helping small drinking water systems and rural communities provide safe and clean drinking water to their residents. 

For more information on the Healthy H2O Act visit wqa.org/HealthyH2O

About the Author

Jordan Kari

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