Is it Legal to Drill Your Own Well? A State by State Guide (2023)

Because US water law is a broad and nuanced topic, we’ll cover some of the most important tenets that will help you better understand groundwater rights in your region.

As the topography of the United States varies greatly from one coast to another, so does water availability. Because of this, Eastern states, where water is more abundant, follow different water laws than the more arid Western states.

Groundwater law is handled a bit differently than surface water and rainwater law. And determining water "ownership" can be tricky when underground aquifers often extend beyond private property lines.

As such, we'll have a look at five of the most common groundwater law doctrines that states follow in order to best determine the rightful distribution and usage of the water below.

Doctrine of Absolute Dominion

Also known as the "English Rule," this doctrine allows the landowner to pump as much water from the aquifer that exists underneath their property as they see fit, regardless of the impact it may have on others who may share the same aquifer. Naturally, the Absolute Dominion doctrine benefits water well owners with the largest and most powerful pumping system as there would be no restriction on how much water can be drawn.

Many states have moved away from this doctrine as it incentivizes industries to pump large amounts of water while disregarding the groundwater levels. But for private property owners in regions where water groundwater is more abundant, this doctrine is certainly the least restrictive. States that continue to use the Absolute Dominion doctrine are Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Texas, and Vermont.

Doctrine of Reasonable Use

The Reasonable Use doctrine, also known as the "American Rule," is a variation of the Absolute Dominion doctrine. A property owner may have access to all the groundwater underneath his/her property as long as it is used "reasonably" and doesn't greatly affect the rights of those who may share the same aquifer.

The word "reasonable" can be interpreted differently between states but the underlying principle is that neighbors who share the same groundwater source should be able to enjoy it responsibly and without excessive wasting. This generally covers most household uses such as gardening, livestock use, and indoor use.

With groundwater levels becoming increasingly precarious and with population increasing across the country, many states have adopted the Reasonable Use doctrine as a way of balancing water rights and water availability.

States that follow the Reasonable Use doctrine are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Doctrine of Prior Appropriation

Also known as the "first come, first serve" doctrine, Prior Appropriation is one of the oldest water doctrines in the United States, dating back to the 19th-century gold rush era.

This doctrine states that the first person to utilize the groundwater source holds primary rights to it. Many states have either moved away from this doctrine or modified it to resemble a more "Reasonable Use" approach.

States that follow the Prior Appropriation doctrine are Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Doctrine of Correlative Rights

The main principle behind the Correlative Rights doctrine is that landowners directly above the aquifer and those who wish to divert groundwater have equal access to it as determined by the courts. This doctrine is especially used in regions where groundwater is scarce and must be appropriated equally.

States that follow the Correlative Rights doctrine are Arkansas, California, Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Nebraska.

Doctrine of Restatement of Torts

The Restatement of Torts doctrine is seen as a hybrid of the Absolute Dominion and Reasonable Use doctrines. Its governing principle is that the landowner who uses the water for a beneficial purpose is not subject to liability for interference as long as a reasonable share of the total store of groundwater is not exceeded.

States that follow the Restatement of Torts doctrine are Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

How to Apply These Doctrines

Each state follows at least one of, a variation of, or a hybridization of two or more of these doctrines.

As a private well owner, the one doctrine that almost always applies to you, regardless of which state you live in, is the Reasonable Use doctrine.

This states that you are free to reasonably use your well on your own property as long as it doesn’t unreasonably affect the usage of others who may be drawing water from the same aquifer and as long as your usage isn't excessively wasteful. So, drawing just enough water to supply your home, garden, and anything else for personal use is considered "reasonable."

As long as this principle is followed, you'll be in compliance with most groundwater laws across the board.

The USGS splits wells into either shallow or deep categories. A shallow well is a well with a water table of less than 25-30 feet deep and can be accessed with relatively simple equipment. If you’re considering digging your own well, you'll need to find out with your local water resources department to see if you'll have any luck with hitting a shallow water table.

Deep wells can reach depths of 300 feet and beyond and will require professional contractors with drilling rigs and heavy equipment. Unless you’re a licensed driller yourself, you’ll need to hire a contractor for deep wells.

But if you’ve familiarized yourself with the water table in your region and are pretty certain you can hit water at less than 25-30 feet, then you'll just need to find out if your state will let you do it.

Permits, licenses, and water rights

Water laws can get a bit complicated so it's helpful to have an understanding of the basic terms before inquiring with your state and county agencies. This section will explain the differences between state-issued permits, professional licenses, and water rights.


A permit is a temporary authorization from the state or county agency to allow a person to dig a water well within specified guidelines. While most states require that an individual file for a permit prior to digging a well on their property, some local counties also require special permits in addition to a state permit.

Applications for permits are usually filed with the state's Water Resources or Environmental Quality department and often require a fee. Information such as the well depth and type, and the amount and purpose of water being used are often asked for.


A license differs from a permit in that a license is a state-issued warrant that water well contractors carry in order to perform their professional duties. A license requires a certain amount of education, training, and testing — which is then issued by a state board.

If a state requires a license for a well to be drilled, it is often because there are precarious groundwater conditions that need to be professionally handled, and/or the water table is far too deep for an unlicensed property owner to dig on their own.

If your state requires a license for well drilling, the best approach is to contact a licensed well contractor for the next steps. They'll often handle all the permits requirements that the state and county may have.

Water Rights

Some states, especially those that follow the Absolute Dominion and Prior Appropriation doctrines, require that property owners have the appropriate water rights in order to drill or dig a well. Water rights don't necessarily come with property rights so it's best to inquire with the state first.

Some water rights can be purchased and others need to be grandfathered in. If your state requires water rights, check with their water resource records to see if you already have them or, if not, how you can obtain them.

What you need to do

  • It is important not to assume that you can drill or dig a well on your own property without a permit, license, or water right but to check with your state's water jurisdiction. Each state handles groundwater regulations differently.
  • Always check with local county and city agencies for further permit requirements as well—some smaller municipalities may have specific requirements in addition to state requirements.
  • While the majority of states allow for private well-digging with the approval of a permit, a handful of states restrict digging ONLY to licensed professional contractors. In these cases, the permit is usually filled and managed by the contractor using the information provided by the property owner.
  • There are a handful of states that don't require a permit or license, but it is still best practice to check for guidelines that must be adhered to.
    Top Articles
    Latest Posts
    Article information

    Author: Geoffrey Lueilwitz

    Last Updated: 01/06/2023

    Views: 5364

    Rating: 5 / 5 (80 voted)

    Reviews: 87% of readers found this page helpful

    Author information

    Name: Geoffrey Lueilwitz

    Birthday: 1997-03-23

    Address: 74183 Thomas Course, Port Micheal, OK 55446-1529

    Phone: +13408645881558

    Job: Global Representative

    Hobby: Sailing, Vehicle restoration, Rowing, Ghost hunting, Scrapbooking, Rugby, Board sports

    Introduction: My name is Geoffrey Lueilwitz, I am a zealous, encouraging, sparkling, enchanting, graceful, faithful, nice person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.