A 40-foot rig has been drilling deep into the rock in northeast Carroll County, seeking a treasure underground: water.
Lacking public reservoirs, town officials must look deep in the earth for water to fill their storage tanks and keep residents' taps flowing. With demand increasing from development and the water table strained by drought, the well-drilling season goes year-round -- through rain, ice and snow.
Where to drill is the question.
The search for waterlogged rock -- the kind that's fractured or full of voids for water to seep into -- has moved from the art of the divining rod to the science of satellite photography and electro-shocking the earth.
The high-tech methods come with a price. The town of Hampstead (population 4,200) recently decided to spend $25,000 of its $1 million capital water budget on sophisticated electro-resistivity tests to increase the chances of hitting a gusher.
The Town Council reluctantly voted for the testing because it had spent about $40,000 to drill six disappointing holes on sites chosen from old geologic maps that had seemed to promise water-laden marble.
Town Councilman Lawrence H. Hentz Jr., an environmental engineer, argued that the money would be well spent. The town's quest for water is like "hunting for a moose in the woods," he said. "You scare up a lot of birds, so you get a night scope.
"This is our night scope here, and the geologists give us pretty high hopes that the moose is out there," he said. "We've seen the moose, but we haven't got a shot at it yet."
The town uses about 350,000 gallons of water a day from a supply of about 500,000 gal- lons a day -- enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool three times. The water is supplied by about a dozen wells in town.
The water sleuths from Scientific Applications International Corp. recommended the testing in the Brodbeck Valley, a mile west of town, based on aerial photographs showing fractures and bands of vegetation that indicate moisture.
Officials hope to find a new well to provide 100 to 150 gallons a minute, enough to justify the expense of acquiring land and building a system to bring the water into town and up into the huge water tanks used by residents, businesses and firefighters.
If the town finds a good well with high-quality water, officials plan to shut down some existing wells. They expect water from the open land to the west to be purer if it has percolated in the marble and will not need expensive treatment for contaminants, as some of the town wells do.
SAIC has also worked in Taneytown, Union Bridge and Sykesville, where it recently found wells that appear to be producing a bountiful 400 to 500 gallons a minute.
Hampstead would love to find such a gusher, but the town in the Route 30 corridor has had water problems for decades because of development and the area's geology, experts say.
Hampstead and neighboring Manchester lie in the northeast corner of the county, where the underground water is less plentiful and harder to find. Some residents in south Carroll get water from Liberty Reservoir, which is in the county but mostly supplies drinking water for Baltimore.
The central part of the county, where Westminster is, is better off because it lies over the water-rich rock formation known as Wakefield marble.
But the towns in these areas seek to increase and protect their water supplies, especially when drought diminishes the water table.
Westminster officials protested loudly last year when the county floated a plan to extend the city's water service south to Bethel Road in unincorporated Finksburg.
"We're always worried about water," said Thomas B. Beyard, Westminster's director of planning and public works. "That's true pretty much countywide. We don't have large surface supplies to draw from like some counties. We're pretty much limited to ground water."
The city has introduced four wells in the past two years and sells more than 1.97 million gallons a day. The total of water used rises to 2.2 million gallons a day when unmetered uses such as firefighting, street-cleaning and leaks are included, he said.
The city digs its wells by studying aerial photographs for fractures in the rock, he said, coupled with a countywide water study from the 1980s -- the water book in Carroll for decades -- which was prepared by R. E. Wright and Associates, since acquired by SAIC.
"Does that mean you're going to get a productive well? Not necessarily," Beyard said.
Two recent city wells drilled over the marble are producing a total of 125,000 gallons a day.
Carroll has acquired land for two reservoirs -- Union Mills and Gillis Falls -- but nothing has been proposed to the state and isn't likely to be for 10 or 20 years. A small reservoir at Piney Run Park has been used for recreation.
Just north of Hampstead, Manchester (population 3,100) also needs a good well, said Mayor Elmer C. Lippy.
The town had used three springs since 1933 as part of its water supply, but two were shut down by the state in 1994 for suspected contamination. It now has four wells.
Manchester has several good prospects for a fifth well site, based on the old water study, Lippy said. "But they're all just Xs on the map. They have equal value. Until you drill, you never really know."
Six failed attempts
Where to drill? That was the question for Hampstead after six failures.
With SAIC's test results completed, hydrogeologist Eric Andreus slogged through a farmer's muddy cornfield in the Brodbeck Valley late last month seeking that precise spot.
After the October Town Council vote approving the tests, the SAIC experts studied aerial photographs for depressions and strips of vegetation.
In November, they tried to find water-saturated rock by running electrical impulses into the ground. A month later, they fed the field readings into a computer to produce models of the underground layers at eight test sites, with colored bands showing different levels of resistance to the flow of electricity.
Several of the sites seemed to contain water.
"Where the rock is broken and waterlogged, saturated, there's less resistance" to the flow of electricity, said Jeffrey L. Leberfinger, SAIC's manager of geophysical services.
"Even five years ago, we wouldn't be able to do this," he said of the computer analysis. "We had to wait for the technology to catch up. We could get the data, but not process it efficiently."
Soon, he expects to be creating three-dimensional models.
The results of the tests led Andreus and a two-man crew from Jones Well Drilling Inc. of Jarrettsville into the cornfield.
After one hole yielded only 5 gallons a minute, a bulldozer pushed and pulled the 40-foot drilling rig through the mud to the other end of the field. Andreus directed the rig, foot by foot, trying to position the 6-inch drill bit above a fracture between rock formations.
'Just dust, all dust'
It hit rock at 45 feet in the second hole, and Andreus seemed encouraged. But what looked like water spray was "just dust, all dust."
Studying samples he collected from beside the bit, he said, "This rock is so weathered, we know there was water in here at one time, but that could have been -- who knows? -- thousands of years ago."
Later, sheets of water began to appear above the drill bit, but no one seemed excited. "That's not very much," Andreus said. "If it's 100 gallons a minute, you'll know it. You'll know it."
By last week, Andreus said, they had drilled down 300 feet, and the hole seemed to be producing about 50 gallons a minute, the minimum needed, after an initial burst of 80 gallons.
SAIC will report to the Hampstead council before drilling more wells, Andreus said. If the council is willing, it might head out again with the rig to a few other promising sites, north and south of where it has drilled wells.
"They've all been in the 20- to 50-gallon range, nothing in the range we're looking for, 100 gallons a minute," he said.
Pub Date: 2/07/99