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Money Down the Well

By the glass, water’s cheap. Not so when you have to drill 260 feet for it

Water is pretty cheap in the United States: 61 cents a day supplies each of us with our daily ration of 123 gallons of water. Cheap enough that we take it for granted, until the well runs dry. That’s the day dreaded by every well owner, and there are lots of us.
    Public water is a blessing of urban and suburban communities. Rural communities still use wells. In Calvert County, where I live, approximately 15,400 out of roughly 34,150 households draw their water from wells.
    In Anne Arundel County, approximately 40,000 out of roughly 215,000 households depend on wells, with another 600 wells dug each year.
    I’ve gained a renewed appreciation for my small, personal water reserve. Having paid $9,000 in advance for 40 years of water, my family and I have learned to value water.
    Here — to inspire your pity and fear — is our story.

August 15, early morning: Hollywood Beach, Florida
    Halfway through a sunny Florida vacation, we are floating in turquoise water, sipping piña coladas, when the call comes. Hubby’s caller ID reveals it’s my housesitter. He never calls unless it’s an emergency.
    The pets are fine, he reassures us. But the well’s not working. The water pressure is very low.

August 15, late evening
    The well company arrives, finds sand in the pump and suspects it’s burned out.
    Housesitter works the phone, checking out well companies. His report: three grand to replace the pump; Much more if the well’s run dry.

August 16: Well Over Our Heads
    Our worst fears are confirmed. We need a new well. Estimated cost: between $8,000 and $10,000.
    How long will we be without water? A few weeks? A month?

August 20: Water by the Drink
    The well contractor applies for building and health department permits.
    He also delivers a temporary water supply, a black box that looks like a magician’s prop atop a flatbed truck that hogs half our driveway. It holds 1,200 gallons, enough to satisfy a family of four for four days. This is the first of four we will drain.
    • Here’s where our water goes daily, according to the U.S. Geological Survey:
    • Brushing teeth: 1 gallon.
    • Flushing toilet: 4 to 7 gallons. New toilets use 1.5 to 1.6. Ours uses about 2.
    • Washing dishes (by hand): 9 to 20 gallons.
    • Washing dishes (by machine): 9 to 12 gallons.
    • Showering (10 minutes): 25 to 30 gallons.
    • Washing clothes: 30 gallons.
    • Watering the lawn: 180 gallons.
    I learn to measure in water increments. It takes exactly five 16-ounce water bottles to fill my aquatic turtle cage. And one 16-ounce bottle to fill each dog’s water bowl. I can get away with eight ounces for each cat’s bowl.
    Our family of four really equals 12 with the pets: two dogs, three cats, two turtles and a fish. The fish and aquatic turtle cages need weekly cleaning.
    Doing laundry and watering my outdoor plants is out of the question. My mother washes our laundry for four weeks. Outdoor plants rely on Mother Nature.
    I scream ‘Oh no’ from the bathroom when I waste a flush. I teach the family a reminder rhyhme: If it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down.

Three Weeks with Company
    We live on six tranquil acres in the woods. Now uninvited guests arrive at all hours, surveying and inspecting the land surrounding the old well and the potential new one.
    First comes a man from Miss Utility, who totes his survey machine around like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, proton pack strapped across his shoulders. Mr. Utility sprays bright orange paint strips onto our lawn.
    Next comes the Health Department inspector. Many more follow.
    I stop sunbathing and keep the dog tied up.

September 10: Let the Digging Begin
    Finally, the heavy equipment arrives. It’s pulled in on trailers by big trucks.
    But then rain pushes the digging back again.
    “We don’t work in the rain,” says Haus, who appears to be in charge.
    “But you deal in water for a living,” I point out. “It’s just rain.”
    He bows his head, apologetically, peering at his mud-caked, steel-toed boots and walks away. Haus fills my doorframe as he tells me again, there’s no digging when it’s raining.
    The next day brings more heavy rain, but they dig anyway. Maybe my pleas — a mixture of manic-anger and on-the-verge-of-tears hysterics — worked.
    The average well runs 350 feet deep, ranging from 250 to 500-plus feet.
    Our new well will be 260 feet deep, so we’re on the shallow end. But that’s still a lot of digging.
    Watching the dig reminds me of one of my favorite childhood stories, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. If Mike and Mary Anne could dig the foundation for the new town hall in one day, surely Haus and his crew can dig and drill the well in three days. That’s the average time from start to finish, without all the extras.
    It’s almost impossible to maneuver our driveway-turned-obstacle course of heavy equipment, vehicles, pipes and work gear. I’ve invented the eight-point turn to back up from my garage and out to the main road.
    A nine-foot hill of dirt and scattered smaller piles smother the yard.
    The dogs remain on high alert, barking and growling as each new crewmember enters their domain. They watch the digging, too, then smell and scratch around the fresh-dug dirt after the drillers leave for the day.
    The cats are terrified and just stay away from it.

September 12: Nightmares
    The nightmares begin. I dream of vivid dark monsters living in the well, waiting to escape when the digging frees them after millions of years. Then me, spiraling down and down, with no escape from the well monsters.

September 13: One More Thing
    The digging is complete.
    Part 2 — digging a four-foot-deep trench from the well to the holding tank 40 feet away to the garage — is complete, too.
    But the saga continues.
    The garage — on its 1970s cement slab — presents another obstacle. You can’t run PVC conduit underneath a cement slab. So the conduit — that now runs up the side of the garage rather than underneath it — needs a new protective structure.
    That’s not part of the well-drilling job. It is now at the top of Hubby’s honey-do list.

September 14: Purification
    Chlorine is added to the well to purify the water. It sits for 24 hours. We drain it with a garden hose turned at half-force for another 24 hours. Then we run the seven faucets in the house to flush out rust particles, and we run two empty loads in the washing machine to get rid of chlorine remnants.

September 17: Water in Our Taps
    We can shower and flush. But we don’t dare drink the water.

September 21: 36 Days to Victory
    Our water no longer smells like a swimming pool. We don’t have to count our flushes. After 36 days, we again have a well and fresh water.
    We celebrate with a champagne toast over the new well. Should we name it, like people do their boats?

September 24: Those Poor Souls
    I see a sight that sends my heart racing: a well tanker in a neighbor’s yard. They’re beginning the long journey we’re finishing.

October 15: Green Grows the Grass
    There’s a bright spot on our horizon. The grass seed atop the new well site is sprouting beautifully. Hubby bought top-of-the-line Pennington all-fescue seed, five bags at $38 each. Like an alien crop sign, a green circle with a radius of 16 feet surrounds the new well.

December 11: Still Waiting for a Drink of Water
    Still waiting for the Health Department’s certification that it’s safe to drink the water from our well.

December 31: Happy New Year!
    Our water gets the green light. We toast the New Year with precious ­certified water.