NORMAN — Private wells are not the answer to Norman’s water quantity or quality issues, city leaders said this week as the Norman City Council Oversight Committee discussed permitting.
Oklahoma law recognizes the water rights of property owners and does not allow cities or other governmental entities to forbid the drilling of private wells. The state does, however, put certain limits on wells, and cities may require permits.
Norman has been permitting wells since the 1970s, city sources said, but with the drought heightening awareness of possible water shortages in the coming summer months, many property owners associations have made inquiries regarding drilling private wells. These wells would be used for non-drinking purposes such as irrigation of a neighborhood’s common areas such as parks or community gardens.
Existing city ordinances regarding the permitting of water wells is out of date, said Kathryn Walker, assistant city attorney. The language needs to be tightened to reflect consistency with state law.
In addition, the city council can include a few protective requirements.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board regulates groundwater use and issues permits for most wells — such as municipal, industrial, agricultural, irrigation and recreation, Walker said. However, OWRB does not permit domestic wells.
Cities can regulate and permit the drilling of domestic and industrial water wells within state guidelines. The state defines domestic wells in two categories. A household or family may use a domestic well for household use and for farm and domestic animals or for the irrigation of up to three acres of land to water lawns or gardens.
More acreage than that becomes agricultural.
Non-household entities such as property owner associations or homeowners associations are also domestic up to five acres if the use is not commercial, Walker said.
Those uses could include drinking water, restrooms and watering lawns.
OWRB regulates domestic well construction standards, including those governing location. When a hole is punched into the aquifer, any contamination can go down that hole and pollute the water in the aquifer. Because municipal wells draw from the aquifer, protecting against that pollution is important to protect water quality and public safety, Norman Utilities Director Ken Komiske said.
OWRB requires wells be drilled at least 10 feet from sanitary sewer lines, 25 feet from above-ground sprinkler spray and 50 feet from an above-ground sprinkler head. Wells also must be 300 feet from a waste lagoon or feedlot.
Well surfaces must be cased to seal the pipes from possible contamination such as the high salt content found near oil wells, Walker said.
The widespread proliferation of private domestic wells could impact the aquifer, city leaders fear. That aquifer makes up about one third of Norman’s water supply — the portion that is obtained by the city’s wells.
“They think there’s around 70,000 domestic water wells in Oklahoma,” Walker said.
OWRB limits how many municipal and commercial wells can be drilled in the aquifer, but it does not limit domestic wells.
“In the long run, if we have tens of thousands of wells, it will affect us,” Komiske said.
City council members discussed requiring water meters on all new wells to monitor how much water is being used. Even though state law allows private wells, it limits how much water can be drawn from those wells annually. The law allows for 3 acre feet per year for domestic household wells and 5 acre feet per year for non-household domestic wells.
Komiske said, depending on the acreage in question, that’s not much water. Meters would help people realize how much water they are using.
City staff proposed the city’s permit fee be increased from $5 to $50. Other proposed code amendments for permit requirements include requirements that wells be constructed by OWRB certified drillers and that an OWRB Groundwater Well Completion Report be submitted to the city.
Drilling a well can be a complicated and expensive process.
“It’s not as easy as laying pipe along the street,” Komiske said.
Depth determines the cost.
“Just a small well might cost you $45,000, and that just gets you to the surface,” Komiske said. “You’re not promised to get water. Just because you put a hole in the ground doesn’t mean you’ll get water.”
In east Norman, a well may cost around $6,500 because the well can be about 100 feet deep versus a 650-feet deep well in west Norman with a cost around $45,000. And that cost doesn’t include above-ground issues such as pumps and piping to get the water where you need it to be, Komiske said.
Private wells are in demand because of the drought.
“Water well diggers already have a three-month backlog,” Council member Tom Kovach said.
Kovach said the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments has been dealing with concerns about pollution resulting from contamination of the aquifer via private wells.
“Water quality is important, so we want to make sure we have requirements to protect the quality, not just the quantity,” Council member Robert Castleberry said.
While water wells are not subject to mandatory conservation implemented by the city, those wells affect the water supply.
“Private or public, we have to have limits,” Council member Roger Gallagher said.
Council members agreed that the city must control water sources to maintain “water independence.”
Mayor Cindy Rosenthal suggested cross training city employees to better recognize water use violations and to warn and educate people.
The full city council will consider amendments to the well permitting ordinance soon.