One of the most important pieces of infrastructure on a farm is without a doubt the well. Unlike in towns and cities, many of us don’t have water systems in rural areas, so we depend on wells for the water we need for our families, our livestock and our crops.
Historically, these were dug wells, but as technology has evolved, rural water needs have become more complex, and we’ve become more aware of the importance of clean, healthy water sources. Today, most modern wells are installed by well drilling professionals licensed by Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
Like with any piece of equipment or infrastructure, older wells can fall into disuse or need to be replaced if they no longer meet the needs of the property owner or farm business. If not properly managed, abandoned or unused wells can pose a potential hazard to people, pets and livestock. That’s because they are an opening into the ground with the potential to cause harm – and in many cases, are hidden by weeds or overgrown shrubs, which makes them difficult to be seen.
An abandoned well can also pose risks to the ground water below the surface because it provides direct access to the aquifer underneath. The proper way to take care of unused wells is a process called decommissioning, which involves permanently plugging and sealing off the well. This prevents both potential contamination of the drinking water and the risk of people or animals falling into a well and hurting themselves.
I farm in Waterloo Region, and this was a process we undertook on our own farm to decommission several wells that we were no longer using. The provincial government in the past has provided funding to help farmers and rural landowners decommission abandoned wells, and there are currently some parts of Ontario where programs are available to help with these types of projects. In our area, for example, Waterloo Region and the Grand River Conservation Authority have partnered on water initiatives, and well decommissioning is one of the activities they fund.
There is also an excellent online resource in the form of a Best Management Practices guide for water wells that explores all aspects of well management, including decommissioning. It’s part of a new digital library of how-to guides for sustainable agriculture and rural living that the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has supported.
In some parts of Ontario, it’s not just water wells that must be properly decommissioned once they’ve reached the end of their life. Our province is also home to wells that have produced oil or natural gas, or were used for exploratory purposes. Although some are still in production, many aren’t and not all of them have been properly decommissioned.
Here, too, it’s a matter of safety and of protecting our drinking water. That’s because oil and gas wells represent potential hazards to farm equipment in the field, and they are a direct conduit to the aquifer, making it easy for any kind of surface contamination to get into the water. This is becoming increasingly important as we become more aware of the significance of our aquifers and the need to protect them so that there is safe, clean water for people, livestock and crops.
The OFA has long advocated for proper decommissioning of unused wells. In fact, it was about two decades ago that we ran our own water well decommissioning project, which resulted in 1,100 wells being properly and permanently taken out of commission.
We appreciate the agencies and municipalities who have taken the lead in funding these vital projects, and we’ve always encouraged governments at all levels to collaborate on programming that will help reduce costs for landowners to identify and decommission unused wells.
Water is a precious and vital natural resource that we all depend on, and as a society, we share a collective responsibility to ensure we take care of it properly.