National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV

Wellhead Protection:
Big Benefits for Small Systems

By Nancy Zeilig • NDWC Contributing Writer

Remember when your grandpa told you “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? That’s how Brendan Murphy, project manager at the National Rural Water Association (NRWA), describes the value of wellhead protection. The cost of developing and implementing a wellhead protection program is considerably less than the cost of restoring water quality after the supply has been contaminated.

Protection Is Important
The 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Amendments required states to develop wellhead protection programs to prevent contamination of public groundwater supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must approve state programs. Today, 49 states—plus the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico and a number of Indian tribes—have EPA-approved wellhead protection programs in place.

Unlike state programs, local wellhead protection programs are voluntary. This means that water systems sometimes wait until they face a specific water quality threat to pass a wellhead protection ordinance or begin developing a program. But waiting until a problem occurs is not the best approach. “Having a full-fledged wellhead protection program in place gives a system more standing” in its attempts to protect its supply, says Kathleen Reilly, a watershed coordinator with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “When a system has already defined the area to be protected and has notified the county, then the county knows this is a sensitive area when it makes land-use decisions,” Reilly says.

The key steps in developing a wellhead protection program are:
• delineate the land area to be protected,
• inventory potential sources of contamination,
• implement strategies to manage these contaminant sources (these strategies often focus on public awareness and education programs), and
• develop contingency plans for emergencies.

Start a Protection Program
If your utility has a safe water supply, developing a wellhead protection program can be a relatively simple, inexpensive process that merely requires state approval. Systems dealing with more complicated challenges may have to resort to mandatory approaches such as zoning ordinances or land-use restrictions. Depending on its situation, a system might begin by partnering with its state NRWA affiliate, asking the appropriate division of state government for help, or hiring a consulting engineer to conduct a needs assessment.

In each of the lower 48 states, NRWA has at least one staff person who can help small systems develop wellhead protection programs on site. According to Murphy, these specialists can educate system operators, boards and councils, and the public about the benefits of wellhead protection; guide systems through the steps required to establish a program; and advise systems about available financial resources. (To get in touch with your state NRWA affiliate, visit the organization’s Web site at, click on the link to “state associations” for a map of state affiliates, and then click on your state.)

The Northern Colorado Water Association, which serves the 1,300 people of Wellington, developed its wellhead protection program with the help of Shauna Wooten, a groundwater specialist with NRWA’s Colorado affiliate. System manager JoAnn Jordan says Wooten determined their protection zone and identified potential contamination sources almost single-handedly. Without Wooten, she says, “Our program would never have gotten done.”

The more complex experience of Pleasant Valley Public Water District (PVPWD) in Peoria County, Illinois, demonstrates the value of cooperating with state agencies. PVPWD, which serves about 6,200 people, won an Illinois Shining Star Groundwater Protection Award last year for being the state’s first water system to designate a regulated recharge area.

First, says system manager Joe Loftus, the utility contracted an engineer to conduct a needs assessment. Although the utility had established a maximum wellhead setback zone in 1988, groundwater modeling showed that the recharge area for the wells was larger than the area protected by the setback zone. The needs assessment also identified potential threats from current land uses in the area.

Next, PVPWD hired an intern, paid by the Illinois EPA (IEPA), to visit 34 businesses within the recharge area to increase awareness of the importance of wellhead protection. Eventually, the employees of 14 of these businesses were required to attend a training session on managing chemical substances. Loftus says the meeting’s success was bolstered by the fact that IEPA made attendance mandatory, but added that “the training helped business owners realize it was their own water supply they were helping to protect.”

When the county was unwilling to adopt additional land-use regulations to help PVPWD protect its wells, the utility enlisted the aid of IEPA and the Illinois Pollution Control Board. After seven years of research and public hearings, the Pollution Control Board issued the final order designating the regulated recharge area in September 2001.

Common Sources of Ground Water Contamination

Source: Bureau For Public Health, Office of Environmental Health Service, West Virginia Source Water Assessment and Wellhead Protection Program

How Much Will it Cost?
The costs of wellhead protection programs vary, depending on the methods used to determine the protection area and the amount of staff time required to administer the program. Expenses can be divided into development costs and annual implementation costs. Delineating the protection area usually accounts for the largest portion of development costs because of the need for groundwater modeling. You can get a rough idea of potential costs by examining the costs incurred by other small groundwater systems.

According to an EPA study published in 1996, the cost of developing a basic wellhead
protection plan at a Louisiana system serving 700 people was $5,487, whereas the cost of a basic plan for a system serving 4,000 people in Maine was $101,014. Charles Job, the EPA staff member responsible for the study, says the more complex geology of the system in Maine caused the difference in these costs. A full report of the study gives a breakdown of program development costs at these two systems.

A more recent study, to be published by the AWWA Research Foundation (AWWARF) next year, reports the costs of wellhead protection programs developed by four small systems in various regions of the country. In this study, the program at Black Mountain, North Carolina, was the least expensive at $44,500. The program at Torrington, Wyoming, was the most expensive at more than $1 million. Mark Williams, the study’s principal investigator, explained that the Wyoming system used a significant portion of its expenditures to implement improved management practices on adjacent farmland in order to reduce high nitrate concentrations in four of its six wells. The programs in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and Atlantic, Iowa, cost approximately $145,800 and $241,000, respectively.

The AWWARF study also calculated annual per capita costs based on total program costs (development costs, plus the 20-year present value of annual costs beginning with the year the plan went into effect). Estimated annual per capita costs were $1.33 at the North Carolina system, $1.44 at the Massachusetts system, $3.94 at the Iowa system, and $10.97 at the Wyoming system.

Can our system get funding?
Many small utilities have acquired some of the funding to develop their wellhead protection plans from outside sources. Roy Simon, acting chief of the Prevention Branch of EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, says that in 1997, federal funds were made available through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) to help states conduct source water assessments.

Though these funds ran out in 2003, states can continue to use money from their ongoing annual DWSRF allotments to help local communities complete source water assessments for wells and set up wellhead protection programs. State contributions accounted for 50 percent of program development costs at the Iowa system included in the AWWARF study and 75 percent at the Wyoming system (though some of the Wyoming funds came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Utilities generally bear the cost of implementation themselves.

(For more information about federal funds that are available to help states and tribes protect source water supplies, see

Is it worth the cost?
The primary benefit of wellhead protection is the preservation of source water integrity. Other benefits, though real, are difficult to measure. Monetary benefits must be estimated on the basis of avoided costs—money saved by avoiding the cost of remediation, continuing treatment, or replacement of wells or well fields. Wellhead protection programs can also yield nonmonetary benefits such as improved groundwater quality, fewer customer complaints about water quality, increased public awareness of the importance of source water protection, lowered risks associated with land uses or other activities that could contaminate supplies, increased collection of household hazardous waste, improved wildlife or plant habitats, and better working relationships among governmental agencies and water suppliers.

Both the EPA and AWWARF studies calculated “avoided cost–benefit” ratios for the wellhead protection programs they showcased. The EPA study assigned an avoided cost-benefit ratio of 5 to 1 to the system in Maine and a ratio of 200 to 1 to the Louisiana system. But regardless of the ratio of benefits to avoided costs, the study concluded that “If groundwater is the only reliable, high-quality drinking water source, expenditures for special protection are probably warranted.” The authors of the AWWARF study concur. Furthermore, they contend that “wellhead protection is generally well received by the public and does not impede economic development within a community.”

About the Author: Nancy M. Zeilig, an independent writer and editor based in Denver, was editor of Journal AWWA for 19 years.


PUPWD’s Loftus and NRWA’s Murphy agree about the importance of protecting source water integrity. “What goes into your well, you’re eventually going to consume yourself,” Loftus says. “If you don’t protect it, you’re taking a chance on damaging your health.” Recalling the adage about an ounce of prevention, Murphy reflected, “It’s always cheaper to protect your source than to clean it up.”

Job, Charles A. 1996. “EPA Update: Benefits and Costs of Wellhead Protection,” Ground Water Monitoring and Remediation, p. 65–68.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1996. Benefits and Costs of Prevention: Case Studies of Community Wellhead Protection. EPA 813-B-95-005. Washington, D.C.: EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.

Williams, Mark B. and Bruce A. Fenske. 2004. Demonstrating the Benefits of Wellhead Protection Programs. Denver, Colorado: AWWA Research Foundation (in press).