Watch your step: there’s not always solid ground beneath you

Ecology provides advice and technical support for covering abandoned wells

It’s nice to be outside in this lovely fall weather – unless the ground gives out from under you and you find yourself looking up at those blue skies from the bottom of an abandoned water well. 

Man lifts a board of wood above an exposed well

This is not just the stuff of melodrama. On Oct. 14, a Thurston County man fell 15 feet into a well while walking property near Cooper Point Rd NW and 28th Ave. NW. The plywood cover gave way, and he found himself in water up to his neck with a dead rat floating beside him.

Fortunately he was not alone, and his companion quickly contacted the authorities for help. When the fire department arrived the man was hypothermic, but is expected to make a full recovery. He was one of the lucky ones.

Photo of a horse trapped in a well, the horse's front quarter and head are outside the well. Two people stand nearby, working to get it out.

A horse being rescued from an abandoned well -- she was OK!

Every year children, adults and animals fall into wells, and many are injured or killed. State law requires that abandoned wells be decommissioned (filled in) and that wells in use or not decommissioned be properly capped (covered). “Decommissioning these old wells is one of our most important missions; it’s a matter of public safety,” said Scott Malone, Ecology’s State Well Construction and Licensing coordinator.

Property owners are responsible for the proper capping or decommissioning of any wells on their land. They could be responsible for any injury or death of animals or humans that may fall into improperly covered wells, and any incidence of contamination. Decommissioning wells must be done by a driller licensed in our state, as it often requires filling the entire casing of the well with cement or other approved sealing material.

Tillie, the hero dog, rescues friend

Tillie, an Irish setter-spaniel mix, and her dear friend Phoebe, a basset hound, disappeared in September on Vashon Island. Phoebe, nose to the ground, fell into a cistern in a ravine. For almost a week, Tillie tried to get help by running out and back to the cistern, never far from Phoebe’s side. Eventually her urgent woof was noticed, and Phoebe was rescued. Without her dedicated friend by her side, she would likely not have survived.

Tillie was honored by Gov. Jay Inslee as Washingtonian of the Day Oct. 15. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes and species.

There are a lof of abandoned wells out there

Unfortunately, we usually find out about the existence of an abandoned well after there is an incident. Wells were not routinely recorded with Ecology until 1973, so no central record is available for older wells. Ecology relies on reports from property owners and the public as to the location of abandoned wells, and estimates these wells number anywhere from 10,000 to as many as 100,000 across the state.

The most dangerous are shallow, hand-dug wells. Many of these were originally dug for irrigation, and are now covered over by brush and vegetation, making them very hard to see.

Walk your property, know what's there

Landowners who don’t know the history of wells on their property should walk their property with a companion, and look for the following:

  • Pipes sticking out of the ground
  • Old well houses
  • Depressions
  • Concrete vaults, pits or tile
  • Old plywood lying on the ground or over concrete tiles or vaults.

For more information

As part of Ecology’s continuing efforts to protect public safety, our Well Construction and Licensing Office created a short YouTube video, “Abandoned Wells: A Hidden Danger.” You can access it, and other information on decommissioning, on our Decommissioning of Abandoned Wells webpage.

For information on all things well-related, go to our Wells – Licensing, Construction and Reporting webpages. You can also contact Scott Malone, the State Well Construction and Licensing Coordinator, at 360-407-6648, or email:

The life you save may be your own!