Well drillers are flooded with orders

Number of new jobs more than doubles amid drought, real estate boom

August 06, 2002|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

When they pulled up to their Parkton farmhouse in late April after wintering in Florida, Ben and Loraine Donaldson were welcomed with the discovery that not a drop of water was flowing from their taps.

Their son, who lives at the house year-round, had just washed four loads of laundry. That was enough to dry up the water supply - and to prompt the Donaldsons to call a professional.

Until then, the farm, which had been passed down through four generations, had managed with a simple hand-dug well.

But with Central Maryland in the midst of the worst drought since 1966, the Donaldsons and hundreds of other homeowners are finding that water sources that had been fine for years have suddenly dried up.

They are spending thousands of dollars - and waiting more than two months - for new wells.

"It seems like the storms are in Cockeysville and south or at the Pennsylvania line and north," said Donaldson, 75. "All we get is a few drops in the dust."

The number of new wells drilled in recent months has more than doubled.

The state's Department of the Environment reports that from November 2000 to June last year, 617 replacement wells were dug in eight Central Maryland counties. From November last year to June, the number had swelled to 1,165.

"In many places, we're at all-time lows as far as ground water goes," said Norman Lazarus, a geologist with the state's water supply program.

In Baltimore County, 41 replacement wells were drilled in June, vs. the usual 16 for that month.

The county is alone in the Baltimore area in requiring yield tests on wells before a home can be sold. So even if the homeowner is experiencing no problems, a new well might be required if the flow is not high enough to meet county standards. A hot housing market on top of a drought makes things worse.

In the seven months that ended in May, 254 replacement wells were drilled in the county. During the same period last year, the number was 88.

"Most of the replacements are for older wells that are shallow, less than 100 feet deep, or hand-dug that are 30 to 50 feet deep from the 1950s and '60s," said Sue Farinetti, supervisor of Baltimore County's well program. She, with two colleagues, must certify each new well.

The problem is mainly affecting homes with wells that are decades old.

In the past, people dug until they hit water and stopped, often at 100 feet or less. New wells are much deeper - often 180 feet at the least and frequently 300 feet - to avoid the problems many homeowners face today.

The Donaldsons' well was about 10 feet deep, hand-dug by Donaldson's grandfather or great-grandfather. Still, it hadn't caused any problems since the 1950s. At that time, he cleaned out some of the "muck" and it was back to normal. Not this year.

Hauling laundry

He, his wife and their son, David, were able to wash dishes and use the bathroom if they were careful about conserving. But they bought drinking water, and for nine weeks Loraine Donaldson hauled the wash to a coin laundry before a new well was drilled. And they are counted as lucky.

"A lot of people do not have a drop of water to use," said Paul Fabiszak, owner of G. Edgar Harr and Sons Corp., a well-drilling business in Baltimore County that serves the region. "People just don't understand how bad it really is."

He said his company is so backed up with calls from desperate homeowners that the wait is about 10 weeks instead of the usual two.

"We are absolutely overwhelmed," he said. "We feel sorry for the people, we really feel sorry. They say, `Can't you come today? Please?' but we've only got so many machines."

The cost of drilling a well usually starts at $9 a foot and can go up to $15. Then there's the cost of a pump, grouting and a permit, bringing the typical bill to nearly $5,000.

Sometimes it takes several tries before workers hit water, and dry holes cost about $6 a foot. That's not so much a characteristic of the drought, companies say, as it of the way water flows through rock far underground, often in trickles the size of a pencil. Missing the stream is not hard.

"With the real estate market like it is with interest rates so low, plus the drought, we are just an extremely busy bunch of people," said Michael Barlow, owner of Barlow's Well Drilling Services Inc. of Bel Air.

Up to 25% more

He said drilling companies are typically charging up to 25 percent more but that prices hadn't risen for many years. No company wants to increase prices too much, he said.

"You still have to be somewhat competitive because the drought will not always be here," he said.

"If you alienate people, you will be sitting here later with people saying, `Don't call that guy, he's outrageous.'"

Homebuilders and developers say the drought is not causing them problems when it comes to wells.

They typically dig wells that are at least 180 feet deep - sometimes 300 feet - and at that depth, finding water is not the problem it is with older, shallower wells.

"It's not having an impact," said builder Howard Saslow, owner of Saslow Homes Inc. "Lack of land is, and growth controls are, but the drought isn't even something we worry about - other than when we seed our grass."

Donaldson said that although he and his family were inconvenienced by the lack of water, he took it in stride.

"There's not much you can do about it," he said. "It's what the good Lord's giving us."

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