About 40 percent of the water used in California comes from underground. During the 1976-77 drought the proportion rose to 53 percent. In some locations water from wells or springs is the only water available. The Department estimates that there are 500,000 to 750,000 water wells (irrespective of condition or whether used or idle) scattered throughout the State. Most are situated in the 400 significant groundwater basins in California, although many are located in the hilly and mountainous areas. They range from hand dug wells to carefully designed large production wells drilled to great depths.
If our groundwater supplies are to remain useful to us, we are obligated to protect their quality. It is ironic that one way in which groundwater quality can decline is through the well. This occurs when, because of inadequate construction, wells provide a physical connection between sources of pollution and usable water. The geologic environment has some natural defenses against pollutants, but each time we penetrate that environment, we may carelessly establish avenues for their uncontrolled introduction. Abandoned wells pose a particularly serious threat, not only to groundwater quality, but also to the safety of humans, especially children, and to animals. Such wells are frequently and conveniently forgotten and once out of mind, there is little chance of preventing them from eventually becoming a problem.
The potential for such problems is growing because the number of wells is increasing. Around 15,000 new wells are constructed each year. In 1977, at the height of the 1976-77 drought, an estimated 28,000 wells (about double an average year) were drilled in the State. The number of wells abandoned each year is not known.
A properly constructed or adequately destroyed well should maintain, as far as practicable, those subsurface conditions which, prior to construction of the well, prevented the entrance of unsanitary and inferior-quality water into usable groundwater supplies. Standards for the construction of water wells and for the destruction of so-called "abandoned" wells can be a significant factor in the protection of groundwater quality and should contribute to the betterment of the health and welfare of the people of the State.
Impairment of the quality of groundwater of the State through improper construction or abandonment of wells has long been one of the concerns of the Legislature. In 1949 it enacted legislation which, among other matters, directed the Department of Public Works to investigate and survey conditions of damage to quality of underground water caused by improperly constructed, abandoned or defective wells and to report to the appropriate Regional Water Pollution Control Board its recommendations for minimum standards of well construction (Chapter 1552, Statutes of 1949). These investigative and reporting responsibilities are now lodged in the Department of Water Resources by Water Code Section 231, which reads as follows:
231. The Department, either independently or in cooperation with any person or any county, state, federal or other agency, shall investigate and survey conditions of damage to quality of underground waters, which conditions are or may be caused by improperly constructed, abandoned or defective wells through the interconnection of strata or the introduction of surface waters into underground waters. The Department shall report to the appropriate California Regional Water Quality Control Board its recommendations for minimum standards of well construction in any particular locality in which it deems regulation necessary to protection of quality of underground water, and shall report to the Legislature from time to time, its recommendations for proper sealing of abandoned wells.
During the 1965 and 1967 General Sessions, the Legislature again reviewed the matter of standards for water well construction. As a result, it established a procedure for implementing standards developed under Section 231 by enacting Chapter 323, Statutes of 1967, which added Sections 13800 through 13806 to the Water Code. The wording of these sections was amended in 1969 when the Legislature enacted the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act (Chapter 482, Statutes of 1969). In Section 13800, the Department of Water Resources' reporting responsibility is enlarged upon:
13800. The Department, after such studies and investigation pursuant to Section 231 as it finds necessary, on determining that water well and cathodic protection well construction, maintenance, abandonment, and destruction standards are needed in an area to protect the quality of water used or which may be used for any beneficial use, shall so report to the appropriate Regional Water Quality Control Board and to the State Department of Health Services. The report shall contain such recommended standards for water well and cathodic protection well construction, maintenance, abandonment, and destruction as, in the Department's opinion, are necessary to protect the quality of any affected water.
The State Department of Health Services also has a concurrent interest in problems caused by improperly constructed, defective, or "abandoned" wells. This interest is evidenced in the "California Safe Drinking Water Act" (Chapter 7 of Part 1 of Division 5 of the Health Safety Code, State of California), which deals with the health aspects of public water supplies. Under this authorization, the Department of Health Services requires a water purveyor to apply for an amended water permit before a new well is constructed and connected to the water system. Before the amended (or new) permit is issued, a thorough review is made of (a) the location of the well with respect to potential contamination hazards, (b) design and construction of the well necessary to prevent contamination or the exclusion of undesirable water, and (c) the bacterial and chemical quality of the water produced. The Department may issue a permit if it finds that the water "under all circumstances is pure, wholesome, and potable and does not endanger the lives or health of human beings." Specific water quality and monitoring standards have been adopted by regulation. If at any time water produced from an existing well fails to comply with such standards, the Department may require changes or modifications of the well, provisions of appropriate water treatment, or cause the curtailed use, even destruction of the well, in order to assure a safe supply to the public.
In summary, the responsibility of the Department of Water Resources is to advise the Legislature and appropriate state agencies on the maintenance of groundwater quality, including protection against adverse effects caused by improper well construction or the abandonment of wells. This responsibility applies to all wells, irrespective of purpose. The responsibility of the Department of Health Services is to investigate, evaluate, and approve public water supplies including the design and construction of water wells.
This report was prepared by the Department of Water Resources in fulfillment of its responsibilities under the provisions of Section 231 of the Water Code, and in cooperation with the State Department of Health Services.
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