Dock of the Bay
Volume VI Number 41
October 15-21, 1998
Real Blues: Whaddya Gonna Do When Your Well Runs Dry?
photo by Nathaniel KnollAs wells run dry throughout the Bay area, large drills are needed to sink new wells and backhoes are needed to trench the lines leading from well to house.
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
One of life's questions you'd rather not consider is bringing sweat to many a brow in the rural reaches of Anne Arundel County this autumn. When the funeral procession - driller, tanker and work truck - pulls into the first yard, you note its arrival with interest and, from your secure, well-watered position, offer your neighbor sympathy.
As neighbor after neighbor is stricken, however, fear rises. Before long, you can't help considering when your turn will come.
Kim Ledsome's turn came on September 21.
"That's when our well went dry," says the Shady Sider. "Phelps Water Company came out on the 23rd to restart the pump, but it was dry, sucking air and the motor and impellers had burned out. So had the hot water heater elements," Ledsome lamented, longing for a shower.
Worse (or better, if you abide by the rule that misery loves company), she learned she was not alone: Ledsome was told that dozens of Shady Side wells had gone dry.
In the smaller Southern Anne Arundel communities of Fairhaven and Owings Cliffs, the percentage is even bigger, and the procession a weekly occurrence. Ten in the last two years, estimates Scott Smith, whose well went dry last month. As many as two-thirds of 70 homes in the decade.
While citizens shudder superstitiously, scientists say they're not surprised.
"It's something we see in fairly dry periods," says Tom Gruver of the Anne Arundel County Department of Health. His department issues permits for all well digging.
August and September were indeed dry periods along Chesapeake Bay. "Throughout Maryland, every region and every county had a deficit for both months," reports Mat Pajerowski of Maryland Department of the Environment.
1998 began as a wet year. Until June, rainfall was above average. But by September, Anne Arundel County was 2.4 inches below normal. Only one inch of rain fell in the month.
Even the bigger picture - the six-month average Pajerowski's Water Rights Division uses to make water supply determinations - was dry. The county showed a five-inch deficit from March through August.
During such dry spells, the Anne Arundel County Health Department permitting "doubles what we issue in an average month, and about half of those are for replacement wells," according to Gruver.
Last month, over 150 well permits were issued in the county; of those, 77 were for replacement wells.
To understand what a dry summer does, we must go underground. Guiding us beneath the surface is geologist David Andreasen of the Maryland Geological Survey.
"In Southern Anne Arundel County, most wells draw from the Aquia Aquifer, an earth layer about 100 feet thick and 100 to 200 feet below ground," explains Andreasen.
Next comes a tough clay layer about 100 feet thick. Beneath it is the Magothy Aquifer, which supplies the water for sod farms and some big subdivisions.
On our coastal plain, these aquifers are not great underwater rivers. Instead, they're layers of medium- to fine-grain sand saturated with water and recharged by rainfall.
The way wells tap into that saturated sand, Pajerowski explains, is "kind of like when you dig a hole in a beach and water flows in. Your well is the hole."
Older wells tend to be shallow and use suction pumps.
In a dry late summer, Andreasen explains, "water level may drop to below the level a suction pump can draw from, so the well goes dry."
As Ledsome learned, when a pump keeps trying to draw water out of dry sand, "you get a kind of domino effect." First the well goes, then the pump, then maybe a lot more.
At this point, Gruver, who issues permits, takes up the story:
"As the water table drops, demand outstrips the well's ability to replenish itself. There was very, very little recharge this summer into those top water aquifers."
Southern Anne Arundel was hit hardest - accounting for about 70 percent of replacement permits in August - because so many of its wells are old.
From Edgewater to Holland Point, "a lot of those older wells are fairly shallow," Gruver explains. "Twenty to 80 feet, with a lot in 20 to 30 foot range. A lot of those old wells, the type with the concrete lid on top, were dug to three or four foot diameter. They were not today's driven wells with four-inch PVC pipe."
The good news for such communities, of course, is that fewer wells need to be replaced every year, because "slowly the old wells get weaned out."
New wells go much deeper, from 110 to several hundred feet, depending on the area of the county. Smith's well on the cliffs in Fairhaven was sunk over 200 feet. Ledsome's well in flat Shady Side was shallower, about 90 feet. She expected the new well would cost about $3,500, but every linear foot adds $9 to the bill.
Depth, rather than dollars, account for why Ledsome's well water might taste and smell different from Smith's or Smith's from a nearer neighbor, even though all were drawn from the same aquifer.
"Water is the universal solvent. Whatever it passes over, some of minerals dissolve and are carried in very low concentration," explains Pajerowski. "Taste has to do with water chemistry and trace elements, and those vary from one well to another."
If the water comes up from your fine new well smelling of hydrogen sulfide while your neighbor's smells sweet, you've just got bad chemistry. Both waters are equally fit to use.
So, unless you have an exceptionally charitable neighbor who will lend you a life-lease on a hose, what you're going to do when your well goes dry is dig. And pay.
Calvert Cliffs: Getting By With a Little Help From Its Friends
photo by Carol GloverFriends of Calvert Cliffs State Park contributed the money and man-hours for new, user-friendly buildings.
Who says the powers that be don't drive hard bargains on behalf of the taxpayers? For the price of two truckloads of cement, the State of Maryland has a new building.
That's the latest in a string of wonders worked by the Friends of Calvert Cliffs State Park. The first such group and the longest running has been keeping Calvert Cliffs State Park open for all to enjoy.
Formed over 15 million years ago, Calvert Cliffs were first described and named by Captain John Smith in 1608. The Cliffs are the resting place of over 600 identified fossils including whale bones, sharks teeth and mollusk shells. Calvert Cliffs State Park occupies 1,313 of those acres. The state of Maryland bought the property in the 1960s and has added to it piecemeal ever since with an estate here, a Girl Scout camp there. Yet without the Friends, the park would have closed in the early 1990s, gated and locked by budget cuts.
"We were challenged in 1993 to keep the gates open and we continue to strive to make Calvert Cliffs State Park the best it can be," says Friends Secretary Connie Dargo.
The latest achievement of this group of Calvert County volunteers makes running this rare treasure of a park a little easier. They've built themselves an all-around administration building. The 24-by-40-by-12-foot building holds an office, storage and repair space, even a flushing toilet. Porta potties have been the norm in the park.
The new building replaces a 17-year-old pole shed that, according to park manager Keith Frere, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was never built to last. Whenever equipment needed to be fixed, one of the volunteers got down on the cold dirt floor to do the job.
This year, using donations from people who use the park, the Friends hired a construction company to pour the slab - this is where the cement comes in - and professionals to install plumbing and electricity. Then they rolled up their sleeves.
Community organizations rallied behind the Friends: members of the Kiwanis Club of Prince Frederick nailed shingles on the roof, Virginia Tech alumni from St. Mary's County crossed the Patuxent to frame the building, the court system sent community service clients to pitch in and St. Mary's College students took over the trails for the day, freeing the Friends to put up trusses, enclose the building, paint and hammer.
Last week, the Friends of Calvert Cliffs showed off their new facility to friends, neighbors and representatives of local and state governments. They dedicated the building and turned it over to state ownership.
Jim Dunmyer, assistant secretary of DNR, praised the Friends for "running this facility with basically zero funding" and promised "concrete evidence" of the state's partnership.
From DNR later this month comes a comfort station complete with well, septic and restroom facilities.
Money for this capital improvement, but not for the day-to-day running of the park, comes from the transfer taxes the state collects when homeowners close on new homes. The state budgets one quarter of the share for capital improvements, hence the comfort station, and buys land with the rest.
After the ribbon was cut came cake, coffee and congratulations. Even as they savored the sweetness of this achievement, the Friends imagined new boardwalks through the park, an exercise trail for handicapped visitors and a pole barn and amphitheater in the park's camping area. The way their plans have it, the wonders will never cease.
Appreciation: Gene Miller, Public Citizen
Chesapeake Country lost a passionate advocate and public citizen with the passing of Gene Miller on October 8.
Gene settled in Fairhaven in 1989, and, like many a newcomer, delighted in discovering his adopted region. From the beauties of Bay, marsh and field to the best Oriental food (cooked by Sy Do at Orient Express in Deale), he wanted to know it all - and have a hand in much of it.
He was particularly proud of his elevated view of Herring Bay and made a hobby of the trumpeter swans that winter there. With feedings of corn, he drew great flocks. Photographic studies of 'his swans' graced his and his wife Barbara's annual holiday cards, as well as the cover of New Bay Times (Nov. 20-26, 1997).
But Gene, as he was quick to note, was not the real wildlife photographer in his family. That is daughter Joanne, whose wildlife studies of the Potomac River made another issue of New Bay Times.
Contributor Joan Clancy was another Miller referral, as was his wife Barbara, who last year chronicled for New Bay Times the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's search for a new conductor and artistic director. Gene sat on the symphony board.
It didn't take long before you knew that Gene was a fixer. It was a role he was born to and one he perfected with practice. A retired executive responsible for many advances in highway safety, he'd spent 11 years on the town council and two terms as mayor of the Montgomery County community of Somerset. After his move to the Bay, Miller became known as mayor of Fairhaven.
It wasn't only for his service as president of the community association that Miller was called mayor. He knew how to get things done, and he was the one people turned to for help with entangled bureaucratic problems. If those problems had an environmental angle, all the better.
His services to the environment were both large and small. At large, he served as founding treasurer of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which distributes our tax check-off and Bay license funds to worthy causes. Nearer to home, we saw him step in to force the Critical Area Commission to do its job and protect a swath of threatened Fairhaven land.
Miller, 69, died at his home on the Bay, a victim of multiple myeloma.
Way Downstream ...
In Virginia, the battle over the state's dubious status as the second biggest garbage importer in the U.S. (behind another neighbor, Pennsylvania) continues. New legislation would slap a moratorium on new dumping and add fees to dumpers. Said sponsor Emmett Hanger (R): "I get great delight from the fact that our proposal takes New York City dollars and builds parks and green spaces in Virginia" ...
In Utah, the "Sundance Kid" is ticked. Robert Redford, the actor-turned-conservationist, accused Utah state officials of being clueless about preserving land. Said Bob: "Their idea of the future is to sell the land."
Australians were treated to a down-under version of The Full Monty last week when three activists yanked off their clothes, every stitch, in downtown Adelaide to protest a new uranium mine. Police said they would shut down the show if anyone complained. No one did ...
In Israel, divers in the Red Sea are showing how Arab-Jewish relations should work. They are cooperating at the port of Eilat to save rare coral on a reef damaged by construction ...
Our Creature Feature this week is a disturbing report from Florida about those endangered gentle giants, manatees. By this time last year,180 manatees were found dead. This year, the number is already over 200, making this one of the deadliest years ever for the endangered sea cow, according to Reuter's News Service.
Scientists say there are only a few thousand left, so that any number of fatalities over 100 yearly is alarming.
What's happening? Many of them were killed by motor boats and some were crushed in canal floodgates. It may be that manatees aren't meant to exist in a complicated civilization. Lamented Save the Mantees' Patti Thompson: "We just watch the numbers [of fatalities] go up year after year."
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Volume VI Number 41
October 15-21, 1998
New Bay Times
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