Dry spell means dry wells

The Baltimore Sun

A well has provided Alice and Frank Kushner with water for the 37 years they have lived in their Westminster area home.

But in late July, the well went dry. Once the Kushners curtailed showering, washing dishes and doing laundry, some flow returned. Still, the couple decided it was time to connect to Westminster's more reliable public system.

With memories of rampant well failures across the metropolitan region during the 2002 drought still vivid, public officials and water resource experts say they are concerned that more private wells could fail over the next month of this bone-dry summer.

Groundwater levels were falling rapidly last month, U.S. Geological Survey data show, and the driest part of the year - late September - is weeks away.

"We're just getting into the period of time when we will probably have the most wells go dry," said Charles L. Zeleski, Carroll County's acting environmental health director. "Conservation is the only thing that helps if a well has less and less water."

Across Maryland, this summer's drought has primarily affected farmers, particularly on the Eastern Shore, where more than 100 residents have recently reported well failures in Wicomico and Somerset counties.

Dry conditions acutely affect groundwater-dependent Carroll County, where just more than half of residents - close to 90,000 people - get their water from private wells, according to the county Department of Planning.

Living right along Westminster's public water lines on Route 32, the Kushners were fortunate to have a choice. They paid about $5,000 for a city water connection this week. Drilling a replacement well could cost three times as much, particularly if the first few attempts came up dry, according to Westminster Well Drilling Inc.

The water level in Carroll County's 310-foot monitoring well in Union Mills is approaching an all-time low, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. Eight of the 22 wells the agency monitors in Maryland are below normal, said Wendy McPherson, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist.

"We're pretty much seeing countywide water levels close to that in '02," said Thomas S. Devilbiss, a hydro-geologist who serves as the county's deputy planning director.

More replacements

Officials in other jurisdictions are watching their wells as the drought continues. Anne Arundel County has issued 25 more emergency permits for replacement wells this summer compared with the number approved during the same period last year, said Elin Jones, spokeswoman for the county health department.

Close to one-third of Anne Arundel residents get their water from wells.

In Harford County, more than 30 percent of residents rely on wells. Failures haven't been a problem in Harford this summer, but county officials are keeping a close eye on water supplies, said Dr. Andrew Bernstein, the county's health officer.

"Whenever there is drought, wells that are most vulnerable will show their weakest links and fail," he said.

Only about 10 percent of Baltimore County households and about 13 percent of Howard County homes have wells, county officials said. Neither locale has reported a surge in replacement well permits.

In Frederick County last month, a U.S. Geological Survey observation well in Cunningham Falls State Park registered its lowest level since measurements began in the 1980s, McPherson said.

During dry spells, private wells drilled before stricter regulations took effect in the early 1980s are particularly vulnerable, Zeleski said. Many shallow, older wells that failed five years ago have been replaced, Devilbiss said. The newer ones are deeper and more drought-resistant.

"This time, wells are better protected," Devilbiss said. Now a new well must pass a pump test requiring a minimum yield: one gallon per minute based on six hours of pumping, or about 1,500 gallons of water per day, Zeleski said.

Westminster well driller Stan Bollinger said he has fielded about 50 calls in recent weeks from Carroll residents anxious over the level of their wells. But Bollinger said those accustomed to "country living" know to conserve when the water table drops during the summer.

"Most people don't understand that it has to be dry for really a few months before it hits the underground aquifers," Bollinger said. "There's a lag period between when it stops raining and when it becomes critical."

Farm needs

While Bollinger hasn't drilled residential replacement wells of late, he said he has filed permits for a Taneytown farmer who needs six wells to provide water for his parched crops and restore pastures for his cattle to graze.

The Kushners should have city water by the end of the month, said Westminster acting Public Works Director Jeff Glass. City workers must receive state permission to tap the water line in front of the Kushner home because it runs under Route 32, Glass said.

Meanwhile, Westminster could restrict outdoor water use as soon as next week if water levels in the city's reservoir and main wells continue to drop, Glass said.

For now, Alice Kushner, 75, is depending on sponge baths, while her 73-year-old husband showers at the gym.

"We've gotten used to it, and we've been managing very well," Alice Kushner said.


Sun reporters Timothy B. Wheeler, Frank D. Roylance, Mary Gail Hare and Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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