Drawing from the earth

Civilized: Drought and Floyd have brougth home the perils of nonurban living, where "well and septic" stir visions of pioneers far from city umbilicals of water and sewer mains

October 03, 1999|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Take a look at the faucet. The toilet. The clothes washer. The lawn sprinkler. People use these household fixtures day after day and probably don't have a second thought about how the water gets into the home and flushed out.

For most homeowners, it's a take-it-for-granted government service: public water, public sewer. Many home hunters won't accept anything else. Yet, buying a home -- usually on large lots -- with a well and septic system doesn't have to be all that intimidating and mysterious.

"The vast majority don't understand their tests, their water treatment system, or what it means," said Baltimore County geohydrologist Kevin Koepenick. "They buy their homes with a false sense that it's OK. They don't know what they tested for, when, or how often they should test."

But homeowners with well and septic systems were reawakened when drought conditions this summer forced them to wonder about the condition and strength of their well.

Although recent rains have washed away fears, some wells in the area may have suffered from the drought. Nevertheless, most experts believe in the durability of the systems.

Water production, or yield, is one of most critical factors involved in a well. If the yield is too low, you may run out of water in the middle of a shower or a load of wash -- and have to wait hours for the well to replenish itself.

Yield must be tested for all new wells. The state has stipulated a yield rate of one gallon per minute on new residential wells. That means that after the well's reservoir, or water standing in the well shaft, is drawn down by a licensed contractor, the well must still pump a gallon a minute for six hours.

This shows that water is replenishing itself from fissures in the surrounding area at that rate. The more and the bigger the fissures, the better the flow. In addition, new wells (not drawn down) must be able to deliver at least 500 gallons over two hours.

Is the state mandate too low? Many homeowners fear that it is, and even attach addendums to their purchase contracts demanding higher yields. Yield has become a suburban status symbol -- sort of a macho thing among homeowners.

Even so, most water authorities say a gallon a minute is a safe minimum. That flow produces 1,400 gallons per day. Most individuals use only 50 to 75 gallons per day, according to county and state statistics.

A good yield

"People think five gallons a minute is better than one. But that's not a guarantee that the [higher-yielding] well will produce forever," said Susan Farinetti, supervisor of the well water program of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. "I had a well that went from 10 gallons a minute to nothing. Now they're nursing it along and looking at redrilling."

Predicting water flow often rests with the driller's knowledge of the area's geology, said C. Wayne Caswell, a Jarrettsville-based driller for 40 years in Baltimore and Harford counties.

Drillers work along with scientists to study aquifers (water-producing rock and rock fissures), the history of the area and topography. Ridge tops -- if your house is on top of a hill for example -- often produce lower yields than valleys. Coastal plains, found in areas closer to the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore, yield up to 100 gallons per minute.

"In schist [the rock beneath much of Baltimore and Harford counties] you can miss water by a few feet," Caswell said. "Churchville [in Harford County] has a lot of water -- much more than there is on Falls Road [in Baltimore County]. That's the injustice of it."

Peggy Watson knows that injustice all too well. Every few weeks a water truck pulls into her driveway to deliver a new load to her cistern. That's because her family spent thousands of dollars trying to drill eight wells on their property. No luck. They use the cistern water for washing -- and bottled water for drinking.

"It gets expensive. I'd rather have well water, but we can't," she said.

"I've heard of 5-foot differences in hitting 50 gallons per minute," Koepenick said.

Because dry weather has been troubling Maryland the last three years, drillers such as Paul Fabiszak, president of J. Edgar Harr Co., have been bombarded by questions from concerned homeowners and real estate agents.

Fabiszak says normal, conservative use is the best strategy. Just don't leave the water running when you brush your teeth or take half-hour showers. And beware of faucets, which can also waste water. If your faucet pumps two gallons per minute and your well yields one per minute, it's easier to deplete the water.

"Be sure you listen for water running. Even if there's a toilet running shut it off," Fabiszak said.

Baltimore County alone uses less than 6 percent of the estimated 70 billion gallons of water that replenishes underlying aquifers each year through precipitation. This yearly recharge is more than three times the capacity of Pretty Boy Reservoir.

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