Maryland wells going dry in midst of severe drought

Drilling firms flooded as water table falls

August 09, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Steve and Felicity Byrne had known for weeks that they had a problem with their water supply. They didn't know how bad it was until a week ago, the day after they came home from vacation. Their well went dry.

"The day we came back, everything was fine," Steve Byrne recounted. "But the next day, when we turned on the water, we couldn't get anything."

The Byrnes, who live in a two-story chalet tucked in the trees on a hilltop in northern Baltimore County, are among a growing number of rural families whose wells are drying up as a result of the worst drought in 70 years.

With minimal rain -- 40 percent less than normal over the past year -- to seep through the ground and recharge underground aquifers, water tables have been dropping throughout Maryland. Water levels in wells the U.S. Geological Survey monitors in the state are approaching record lows, says Bill Banks, a spokesman for the agency.

One monitoring well in northern Baltimore County is within 2 1/2 feet of its all-time low and 4 feet lower than last year. A well in the southern part of the county is 6 inches below where it was this time last year, and it's continuing to decline. And a well in Queen Anne's County has been within 6 inches of its all-time low since December.

It's probably going to get worse, says Kevin Koepenick, a geohydrologist for Baltimore County, because it takes longer for ground water to show the effect of a drought than rivers, reservoirs or other sources of water.

Permits for replacement wells have increased two- to threefold in Baltimore County in the past six months, he says, the highest numbers since 1992.

"We can expect to see more, almost on a rebound effect, because you usually don't see the effects of this until September," Koepenick said.

To make matters worse, most of Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties are in the Piedmont, the upland region between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain, where water must work its way through cracks in bedrock before it reaches aquifers. Anne Arundel is in the coastal plain, where water seeps through more quickly.

While that's bad news for the Byrnes and others in their situation, it's good news for well-drilling companies, who say they are doing bang-up business.

"We're backed up six to eight weeks," said Bonnie Starner, a secretary at H. J. Greer and Sons, a drilling company in Millersville. "We're getting a dozen calls at a time."

Felicity Byrne said drilling companies initially told her she would have to wait three to four weeks for a crew to drill a new well.

Anne Arundel County has issued almost double the number of permits for replacement wells between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1 it issued last year, says Bob Weber, director of environmental health in the county's health department. Howard County has issued 93 permits for replacement wells over the past two years, compared with 46 permits over the previous two years, says Frank Skinner, for that county's health department.

Charles Zeleski, director of environmental health in Carroll County, says he issued permits for 44 replacement wells in the first six months of this year -- about average -- then 16 in July, more than twice the monthly average.

Many of the replacement wells are being drilled at older homes where the original wells were only "20, 30, 40 feet deep," says Weber. "In normal times that would be OK, but as the drought continues, the water table drops away from them. People with deeper wells are not having those problems."

A new well can cost $2,000 to $2,500, depending on how deep drillers have to go and how many holes they have to drill, says Paul Fabiszak, president of G. Edgar Harr and Sons, a drilling company in Cockeysville. One well -- a particularly difficult job -- cost $13,000. On another, one of his crews drilled 18 dry holes until they finally hit water 220 feet down.

Mike Miller and Ronnie Price, Fabiszak's drilling crew at the Byrne house, struck water on their first try at 320 feet, then went to 375 feet.

"We were getting 6 gallons a minute," Price said, "but the owner wanted us to go deeper. So we did, and now we're getting 15 gallons a minute. And that's plenty."

Baltimore County requires a minimum flow of a gallon a minute for residential wells.

While they're waiting for their new well to be completed, the Byrne family is filling 5-gallon buckets of water from Little Falls, just down the hill from the house, to flush the toilets. They're buying water for drinking and cooking in gallon jugs at a nearby Wal-Mart, and took showers at a YMCA in York, Pa., where they belong to a synchronized swim team. They used paper plates and took their dirty clothes to a nearby laundromat.

"It cost more than $20 to wash my family's clothes," Felicity Byrne said. "And to think people go to the laundromat because they can't afford washing machines."

Water is funny, says Price. "Sometimes people don't think how much it means to them until they have to do without it."

Pub Date: 8/09/99

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