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Locating and Evaluating Potable Water Sources on Rural Property

A clean, year-round, potable water source will always be the most important land attribute you need to sustain life. Understanding the different types of rural property water sources and how you can and cannot access, divert and use them will save you time in vetting rural properties and raw land for both residential and commercial use.

Water licensing became mandatory in BC in March of 2022. Under the Water Sustainability Act (WSA), any individual, business, or organization that plans to use surface or groundwater for non-domestic purposes including irrigation, industrial, commercial, or municipal uses must obtain a water license. The water license will specify the exact terms and conditions for water use, diversion, and storage for that land title.

Water for domestic purposes is exempt from licensing in most instances. Household water use includes; drinking, cooking, bathing, and watering pets and poultry, and fire prevention. But, if you are planning to register for farm status for agriculture purposes even as a hobby farm, or run a commercial business you may need to register the well or water source on your property. If the seller has been using the well on the property for purposes other than domestic use, there should be recent WSA registration documentation. Contact the Provincial Government or regional water management branch with your unanswered questions as guidelines and licensing regulations for the type of well or water source you are planning to use may be changing in the near future or need to be renewed.

12 major watershed basins in BC support 19,549 sq. kilometers of freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks. Annual rainfall and snowmelt replenish fresh surface water and most importantly, underground aquifers which exist where saturated rock or sediment allows surface water to penetrate through it. The GWELLS database data reports over 1,100 underground aquifers extending over more than 30,000 sq. kilometers have been mapped and registered in BC. 

Despite the abundance, there are areas of the province that are known to be very hard to locate groundwater. Sources can be hard to locate with geological formations affecting water flow direction deep within the earth. In the Cariboo Region known neighbourhoods exist in Clinton and Buffalo Creek/Forest Grove areas. When viewing properties, stop in and talk to adjacent owners who can tell you how deep their well is, how many times they had to drill, and inquire about smell, taste, and quality.

Drillers get paid, if they hit water or not. They work with you, but ultimately it is the property owner who makes the decision where to put the X on the ground and takes full financial responsibility. The BC Government hosts an online Groundwater Wells and Aquifers database with an interactive map used by drillers to locate groundwater derived from provincially collected data. Regardless, if the database shows groundwater under your property, it doesn’t mean you can drill anywhere you want and be successful.

Be very careful when purchasing an undeveloped lot in an established rural subdivision as you cannot drill for water within 100′ of your neighbours septic tank & field which limits drilling & dwelling locations. For example, the Deka Lake Subdivision in the Interlakes area was subdivided into an assortment of 0.5 – 1 acre adjacent lots that are being rapidly developed into full-time residences. You must know the septic layout of the neighbouring properties on all sides of yours to determine where you are legally allowed to drill with the BC code setbacks.

In reverse, you can only install a septic system within a legal setback distance from your’s and your neighbours existing well, further limiting your options. This is especially important if you are vetting a recreational lot that you plan to develop in the future. Even if there are empty lots around yours now, within a few years your new neighbours may install services that could make your long-term goals for the property impossible.

Before you make any decisions, seek a reputable well driller who will consult and provide a detailed drilling estimate, along with a well pump package estimate. At the same time request a quotation from a septic system installer who will consult onsite to determine where you can legally place both services before purchasing any property without a water source.

Drilling a well is an expensive option, to increase your odds of success you can hire a professional ‘dowser’ to locate sub-surface water. Certain people possess this unexplained but proven trait that allows them to find water with dowsing rods or bent willow. A well-known BC lady named Colleen Roberts, uses her very accurate process to make wells out of at least 95% of the sites she has been hired to dowse on.

Vetting established rural properties with houses and dwellings means you will have to inspect an existing water source and water system. The most common types you will come across include; drilled wells, shallow wells, sand-point wells, or a cistern well system. In rarer instances, a property may have a freshwater spring or a highly prized artesian well. 

I recommend water quality testing be a contingency in any purchase contract with an existing well, unless there are very recent water quality test results. Be aware that water quality testing only shows results from the day you test it, and well water quality can change over the seasons. Healthlink BC has a directory of water testing companies and is a great source of information on well water.

Drilled Wells are the most common and preferred reliable source, with an in-line pump that can be anywhere from 30’ to 300’ deep, they require a power source and pressure tank to move the water. A properly installed water well can last 40 years or more. The listing agent should have available the ‘Drillers Well Log’ a document created on the day the well was drilled, that will tell you; who drilled the well, what depth they drilled to, the gallons per minute the well produces, and at what depth the pump is set at.

The critical components you want to know more about are the age of the submersible pump and the condition of the pressure tank. The average lifespan of a well pump is 12 – 15 years, based off of the frequency or how many times your pump is engaging during its duty cycle. The size of your pressure tank, along with your water consumption will have an effect on how often the in-ground pump cycles to fill the pressure tank. On average you need a minimum of 5 gallons per minute to run a household at peak water use, so water volume should be a red flag in your vetting process. There are a large number of domestic wells in BC that produce up to 50 gallons/per minute, and the higher the volume, the better your chances are that the well is in a deep aquifer and will never run dry.

When the property you are inspecting has a “shallow well” designation you could come across a system as crude as a large open pit dug by a backhoe that captures ground seep and run-off water to a hand-bored sand point with a hand pump or 12-volt solar pump for off-grid properties. Shallow wells are typically 25 feet below the surface of the ground or less and can experience taste and odor issues from mineral content like iron and manganese and the risk of contamination increases for bacteria with a shallow water source.

Do your best to evaluate the slope and elevations of adjacent properties if they are developed to determine if seep, rain, or melt runoff water could carry contaminants to that well’s source. Farms, ranches, pastures, and neighbouring sewers or septic tanks can seep into shallow wells and aquifers. Many shallow wells that tap a clean source can be quite adequate for domestic use, and in some cases, a shallow source can be drilled deeper accessing even more volume.

A cistern water system as a primary source implies that water is hauled-in or collected onsite then contained and stored for use. Fresh water can last in a clean cistern for about 6 months time and require regular maintenance cleaning. This is a great option for seasonal or recreational properties, or residential land that has no groundwater source. Cisterns come prefabricated in fiberglass and concrete or they can be constructed on-site with concrete, bricks, and mortar. Underground storage tanks are the preferred method as sunlight breeds bacteria in water, but they can be found in basements or outbuildings. Cistern systems can be set up to collect filtered rain/runoff water from dwelling roofs and can augment water usage on any property.

Fresh water springs, which can present as a creek or pond can be a quality, low-maintenance option if developed properly into a pumpable or gravity-fed filtered water system. There are many videos online about spring development and how to properly tap it by installing a small filtration dam with a PVC water output pipe which can then be pumped to filtration tanks or gravity fed to cisterns. To get the history of who and how the spring was developed from the current owner. If the source was developed by a previous owner there may be no documentation and you have to rely on known history. A tapped spring or diverted spring-fed creek may decrease in water volume in dry months and it may also be prone to freezing in winter.

The prized artesian well flows from the ground in great volumes whether you want it to or not. This rare groundwater source can be both a blessing and a curse as you must have a way to effectively route the excess water you cannot use away into a drainage tributary or it will cause flooding and erosion. Development around this type of continuously flowing well must be carefully planned, I recommend researching artesian wells and consulting with a water system installer or driller who has experience with this rare well. An artesian well will increase the value of a property, and save you thousands on drilling and water pumping costs

The lifeblood of any property is its water supply. It’s worth your time, money, and long-term health to consult all the professionals you need along with water quality testing in order to make an informed decision.

Freddy & Linda Marks, 3A®Group RE/MAX Nyda Realty

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