- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Months of mostly substandard precipitation portend a dry summer, an alarming notion for those who depend on privately owned wells for their water.
Or so it would seem.
"We're not really in a well drought [yet]. The well levels have dropped now, [but] not to the crucial point where they're going dry," says Paul Johnson, owner of Monticello Pump Service in Falls Church.
That could change, Mr. Johnson warns.
"The ground is so hard [right now that] when we do get a heavy rain, the rain doesn't soak in," says Mr. Johnson, whose service area includes parts of Northern Virginia, Clarke and Loudoun counties. If the conditions persist, he says, "wells will start to go dry."
Brian Kloby, owner of Arundel Well and Pump Service in Prince Frederick, Md., agrees that the current drought hasn't translated yet into an uptick in drilling requests.
Drought conditions aren't the only worry for well users. Other concerns, from possible contamination to mineral deposits cluttering up waterlines, also can give well owners fits.
April's showers supplied an above-average amount of rain, but April was the first month to see such generous rainfall since September, according to the National Weather Service. It didn't have enough of a positive impact to please local officials.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has declared water restrictions for seven counties, and groundwater levels are a concern in parts of Northern Virginia and several Virginia counties.
After a cloudburst, some water is returned to the atmosphere via evaporation. The rest either attaches to the soil and plant roots or seeps down through cracks in the soil until it reaches rock. At that point, the water fills up any empty spaces above that layer, forming the water table. The water that fills the empty areas is called groundwater.
The National Ground Water Association reports that groundwater makes up 77.5 billion gallons, or 19.3 percent, of the country's 401.8 billion gallons of water drawn each day.
In Maryland, 27.4 percent of the population uses groundwater for its drinking supply, according to the United States Geological Survey and census figures. Nearly half of Virginia residents depend on groundwater. The District's groundwater use is much less. In 1995, 181 households used privately owned wells, the USGS reports.
Figures are compiled every five years, although the 2000 results have yet to be tabulated, according to USGS.

The longer the current dry spell lasts, the more well owners should worry, says National Ground Water Association hydrologist Bob Masters.
"In long-term periods of drought, there's a regional 'drawdown,'" Mr. Masters says. "New, fresh precipitation is not enough to overcome soil moisture deficiency. Whatever moisture does come, it runs off and doesn't recharge into the aquifers." Aquifers are underground layers of earth that allow water to pass through them.
Steve Hepner, owner and president of Runyon Well Drilling and Pump in Leesburg, Va., contends that the current drought already is having an impact.
"Well drillers in the Shenandoah Valley are being run ragged because of the drought," Mr. Hepner says. "In Frederick, Md., wells are going dry right and left."
Mr. Hepner says that under normal conditions, a well is like a refrigerator.
"You put it in, and it's good for the next 20 years," he says. Some even can last 50 years or more, while a handful reach back even deeper into the past.
"I'm still dealing with water wells hand-dug by slaves," he says.
Mr. Johnson says wells in this region, overall, tend to have a shorter life span than wells in other parts of the country.
"In Northern Virginia, we have a lot of minerals in the water," he says, which can lead to deposits clogging the waterways. The wells also feature low pH levels. The increased acidity can eat through pumps over time.
"The average time [a well lasts] in this area is from eight to 12 years, and that's not much," he says. A well in most areas will have a 20-year to 25-year life.
Using conservation techniques is the least expensive method for wringing every last drop from a well.
Wendy McPherson, a hydrologist with USGS, says toilets use sizable amounts of water, some up to five gallons per flush. Well owners might consider buying toilets that demand less water.
"People with wells are typically sensitive to water use," she says. Crafty homeowners can extend the life of their wells by being creative. While washing dishes, collect the spent water and use it to water the house plants, she suggests, or use a cistern to gather rainwater for later use around the house.
"With everything you do, think about your water usage," she says.
Sometimes, a well can become tainted over time.
Possible contaminants include nitrates, bacteria and fertilizers, the latter a problem if the chemicals are mixed too close to the well pump.
A private laboratory can charge $10 to $20 to test well water for nitrates and bacteria. Determining whether pesticides or other contaminants are present could elevate that price tag into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Even if the water remains pure, well owners should take a multipronged approach to proper well maintenance, Mr. Masters says. For starters, they should rely on storage tanks to prepare for prolonged droughts.
Should a well continue to struggle, the owner can deepen the well by digging or can recondition it. The latter is a strong alternative. The cost is in the hundreds of dollars, but digging costs about $2,000, he says.
Reconditioning involves pumping out silt and dissolving any encrustation caused by mineral precipitation.
Mr. Masters recommends that well owners recondition their wells once every five years.
He also suggests that well owners should measure their present water level before droughts become an issue in their neighborhood.
"Get a feel for 'this is what it is today,'" he says. "Then you have a point to look at in a year."
This year's drought need not be a watery disaster for area well owners. Mr. Masters points to a drought two summers ago that caused wells to produce significantly low yields.
"Then rain came, and things recovered. These things are cyclic in nature," he says.
Mr. Johnson says he doesn't know how much the drought will affect his business this summer. Until then, he enjoys the perks of his profession.
On a recent business day, he made sure to down a glass of well water before leaving each home. Mr. Johnson's Fairfax County home taps a public waterline that, he says, provides water that tastes too chlorinated for his liking.
"[Well water] is nice and cold and pure," he says.


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