Developing Springs as a Water Source

by Bob Buchanan, Agricultural Water Specialist, Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Edmonton, AB

Traditionally, livestock have been allowed direct access to springs as their water source, but this results in springs becoming quickly contaminated with livestock manure and turning into mud holes from livestock traffic. Proper spring development involves protecting both the spring and its water quality from environmental damage and contamination, as well as improving access to the water for all its intended uses. Springs are less costly to develop than wells and dugouts, however it is essential to check both the quantity and quality of the spring water before development begins.  Springs are highly susceptible to contamination and seasonal changes in flow rate. 

Can the Spring be Developed?

One of the myths about springs is the idea that they provide an enchantingly clean, cool, fresh, and abundant supply of water. Although springs can sometimes be an excellent source of good quality water, there is nothing magical about them. A spring or seep occurs when groundwater emerges naturally on the earth's surface by either gravity or artesian pressure. Springs commonly occur along hillsides and in low areas where porous soils or fractured rock formations allow water to flow onto the ground surface. Springs can occur at a single point or over a large area, called a seep. A slow hillside seep or trickle where no visible water flow is observed should not be considered a true spring. A spring should have water flow throughout the year and have at least a one-gallon per minute flow rate to be considered worthwhile for development. Springs located on hillsides often have sufficient slope to deliver water by gravity to the location where it is to be used. This can result in significant savings on electricity or pump costs. Springs developed in low areas generally require a source of power and a pump to lift the water to its point of use.


Before you start the project, develop a long-term water management plan for the proposed spring. To do this, it is important to consider the following:

        What water sources are available?

        How much water they will provide?

        How much additional water will be required from the spring itself on a daily and annual basis? See Table 1.

        What types of material and equipment are required and what are their costs?

        How can the development be planned to prevent surface contamination or freezing in the winter?

Table 1.  Spring Capacity For Watering Cattle

Number of Cattle Watered (cow/calf)

Minimum Spring Flow Rate in gallons per minute (gpm)

Water Storage Capacity Required (gallons)



















Note: The amount of water storage can be reduced for the given amount of cattle shown in the table if the spring flow rates are higher than those shown.


The key to successful spring development is to ensure that there is adequate water flow and water quality for the intended purpose.   

        Test the flow rate of the spring to ensure it has at least one-gallon per minute flow or more and that it flows throughout the year. The flow rate can be checked by carefully digging a five-gallon pail into the slope where the spring water is flowing and timing how long it takes to fill the pail.

        Test the water quality by taking a water sample in a clean container and sending it to a laboratory for a chemical water analysis.

Once the spring flow and chemical water quality are determined to be acceptable, proceed with the spring development. If not, consider other water supply options.


 There are several design considerations when developing a spring and their importance will largely depend on the intended use of the water. The design considerations are:

        Bacteriological contamination from the ground surface and/or livestock accessing the area around the spring.

        Frost penetrating and freezing the spring.        .

        The elevation of the spring with respect to the surrounding area and also the location of the site where the water is to be used.

        The flow rate of the spring and the amount of water required.

        Protect the resource by not taking more water from the spring than you need.

There are two basic types of designs used for spring developments. One design is for low areas and the other for hillsides. There are also several techniques used to enhance the capture of water from large seeps where the flow is spread out. A useful technique involves a combination of cut-off type infiltration trenches containing washed rock and perforated drainage pipe to collect the water. A layer of washed rock is placed in the trench and around the pipe. Once the water collects in the trench or pipe, it runs by gravity into a collection well or pipeline system to its point of use.


Provincial regulations govern spring development. Contact your provincial Environment department or ministry for the required approval.


For summer livestock watering, the simplest method of spring development is a gravity system.  Fence off the area from livestock and run the water through a pipe down slope into a watering trough as shown in Figures 1 and 2.  This method reduces the risk of spring contamination and livestock being mired in the mud around the spring. For springs in low areas, a small reservoir is dug beside or in the spring that holds from a one-day to a one-week supply of water. The reservoir is then fenced and water pumped to a trough for the livestock.


Figure 1.  Hillside spring development, supplying water by gravity


Figure 2.  Hillside spring development details

For year-round household use and livestock watering, the spring development must be protected from contamination and freezing. For hillside type springs, contamination and most freezing problems can be eliminated by intercepting the spring flow below the ground surface and upslope from where it reaches the surface as shown in Figures 1 and 2.  This can be done with either a cut-off wall or cut-off trench to either block or intercept the spring flow as it moves down the slope. A cut-off wall is usually made of concrete and is more difficult and costly to construct. The cut-off trench is the preferred choice as it can be easily constructed with a backhoe by digging a trench with a depth of one to two feet lower than the spring flow and perpendicular to it as shown in Figure 3. The down slope wall of the trench can be lined with a heavy plastic to form a cut-off curtain that will contain water in the trench and prevent it from being lost down the slope. It is then backfilled with a layer of washed rock to provide a porous medium to collect the spring water and allow it to flow into a collection well. If the collection well is a considerable distance away, drainage pipe can be used to reduce some of the washed rock costs and deliver water to the collection well. After the washed rock and/or drainage pipe are installed, a plastic sheet should be laid over top the washed rock before the remainder of the trench is backfilled with the excavated clay material. The plastic sheet will prevent the clay material from trickling down and causing dirty water conditions, as well as plugging the clean washed rock. If sufficient elevation exists, water can be supplied by gravity through a buried pipe to its point of use. This pipe trench must be sealed off near the collection well with a sheet of plastic to prevent water from flowing along the bottom of the trench and down the hill.


Figure 3.  Plan view of hillside spring development

For springs in low areas, the only option is to pump water to where it is needed. In these situations, the spring is dug out and a collection well installed as shown in Figure 4. The excavated area around the spring and collection well are then backfilled with a layer of washed rock so that the water can easily flow into the perforated collection well. Again, a plastic sheet is placed over the washed rock to prevent the backfilled clay from entering and plugging it. To prevent contamination, the area around the site is elevated with clay fill to prevent infiltration and provide surface drainage away from the spring. The area should also be fenced off to keep livestock out.


Figure 4.  Low area spring development

Design Options For Winter Watering of Livestock From Springs

For hillside type springs, most freezing problems can be eliminated by intercepting the spring flow below the ground surface and upslope with a cut-off wall or trench as shown in Figure 3. To do this, select an elevation six to eight feet higher up the slope to intercept the spring flow. For springs developed in low areas, elevate the collection well and the area around it four to five feet above the water level to prevent freezing as shown in Figure 4.  Freezing of the water lines and watering trough can be prevented in several ways. The water pipe can be buried below the frost level, or above it where there is sufficient water flow in the pipe to prevent freezing. At the water trough, bring the water pipe up through a 15-inch diameter plastic culvert and connect it to the bottom of the trough. This culvert will provide a conduit for heat from below the ground to rise and keep the riser pipe from freezing. Keeping the water trough smaller will reduce the amount of heat loss from the incoming water and minimize ice build-up. Insulation around the trough, a partial lid, or adding a propane or electrical heater will also solve freezing problems.


The water pipe, the collection well, plastic sheeting and other materials that are in contact with water must be rated for drinking water use. The collection well should be made of corrosion resistant materials such as plastic or fibreglass, but corrugated galvanized metal pipe is most common. The size of the collection well should be at least 24 inches in diameter. Additional water storage such as a cistern or large stock tanks are usually required to keep up to the peak water demands of the farm and prevent dewatering or overpumping of the spring. The piping system should be sized to match the flow of the spring and the delivery rate required by the farm water system. Washed rock should be free of iron and other substances that can deteriorate water quality. Use drainage pipe that has a nylon filter sock to keep out sediment. For plastic sheeting, use a woven geotextile material that is strong and will not tear during backfilling of the trench.


Once the entire spring development is completed, the entire collection well and piping system should be shock chlorinated using the procedure for a bored well. This treatment should kill most of the bacteria that may have entered the excavation and piping during the construction. A bacteriological test should then be done on the water to ensure it is safe for household and livestock use.

For further information, contact an Agricultural Water Specialist in your area.

Contact Bob Buchanan, Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Room 204, J. G. O' Donoghue Building, 7000 -113 Street, Edmonton, AB, T6H 5T6 or email at