Thursday, April 2, 2015

Research Q of the Week: What the Well? City Authority to Regulate Use of Water Supply (4/2/2015)

Question: Our city provides water to the community, and we've heard rumors that a bigger business wants to drill a private well so it can use the water for its business. Do we have a say in that?

Answer: Since 1949 cities have had authority to regulate “the use of wells, cisterns, reservoirs, waterworks, and other means of water supply” in city boundaries. This authority includes the power to prohibit private wells in a city.

Zoning law provides yet more authority for cities to prohibit private wells or to prescribe areas of the city where private wells are allowed. City zoning authority can also be used to regulate structures, which would include private wells.

Why does this matter? For sure, Minnesota has water. But the supply is not endless. City water systems must protect groundwater supplies and conserve water resources. If all or even a few of the businesses or townhouse associations in your city drill their own wells and use many gallons of water, it can quickly cause problems for city water systems.

So what should cities do to protect local water supplies and infrastructure? To protect your city water supply and system, consider passing an ordinance that deals with private wells. Work with your city attorney to address wells used for irrigation, sprinkling or other uses, not just for drinking water.

The statutes and case law make it clear that cities have authority to regulate the use of wells to the extent of prohibiting them, and to require that the property owner connect to the city's water system in the interest of everyone's safety and welfare.

But remember, the limited tasks of constructing, repairing, and sealing the well are subject to Minnesota Department of Health regulatory authority. That's a blog post for another day. Oh well.

Got questions? You can email LMC's Research and Information Service ( for sample ordinances, or call us at (800) 925-1122 or (651) 281-1200.

Written by Jeanette Behr, research manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1228.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information. 

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