Drought means business for well drillers

Tapping artesian strata can mean drilling to a depth of 550 feet

October 10, 2002|By Mathew Paust | Mathew Paust,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GLOUCESTER, Va. - When it doesn't rain, it pours - business, that is - for well drillers.

Allen Well Drilling's Doug Allen, one of several drillers in Gloucester County, says the drought has flooded him with jobs, as it has every driller he knows.

Along with wells for new construction, he has a waiting list of folks whose existing wells are drying up.

"I have a backlog of about 2 1/2 months," he said, noting that his answering machine records about a dozen calls a day from people with well problems. Other drillers, he said, are backed up into next spring.

The wells that are drying up, Allen said, are the shallow kind that depend upon rainfall for replenishment. These wells extend about 30 to 40 feet down.

It's a statewide problem this year, with wells drying up much earlier than usual, said Bill Perry, environmental health supervisor with the Virginia Department of Health.

"We usually don't see this kind of peak until late fall," Perry said.

Emergency water

Many people who are waiting for new wells on the Middle Peninsula get emergency water supplies from a spring next to the parking lot at Ware Episcopal Church in Gloucester.

Cars, vans, SUVs and pickups roll onto the shady church grounds almost every day carrying empty plastic jugs to fill at the spring, which is capped with a hand pump.

Barbara Ward, who lives with her mother in neighboring Middlesex County, has been stopping by two or three times a week since early summer, when their shallow well pressure started dropping.

Brown's Well Drilling of Gloucester is scheduled to drill a deeper well for them this month, Ward said, as she filled her plastic jugs from the church spring.

The church, she said, "has been a godsend. It's a blessing, that's for sure."

Emergency permits

Statewide, health officials have issued more than 2,200 emergency permits for replacement wells since July 1, said Tim Jones, environmental manager for the Crater Health District, which includes Surry County.

Jones said applications for permits for Surry residents still are coming in.

"We probably have five or six applications right now," he said.

Perry, who supervises the Three Rivers Health District, which includes the Middle Peninsula, said his office issued 24 replacement permits recently for Gloucester residents, 21 in Middlesex County, 19 in King William County and four in Mathews County.

Emergency permits for replacement wells in other localities included 17 in James City County, seven in Newport News, six in York and Isle of Wight counties, and five in Suffolk.

Doug Allen said he tries to schedule the emergency jobs ahead of those at construction sites, but that where he goes next often depends on proximity.

"If I'm up in King and Queen and I get a call from Mathews or Gloucester, I'll try to do any other jobs I might have in King and Queen first," he said, explaining that moving his heavy equipment from site to site is a consideration that helps determine who gets served next.

Allen said he tries to do two to three wells a week. That means rising at 5 a.m. every day, seven days a week. The hot, humid weather makes this grueling work for him, and it puts extra stress on his equipment.

Because of the lowered water table - 10 to 25 feet below normal, for example, in some parts of Gloucester - most of the replacement wells have to go down much deeper, to the artesian strata, which isn't dependent on recent rainfall. This is complicated by the fact that most of the shallow wells are on sites where the artesian strata may be as much as 550 feet from the surface, he said.

Allen said the rate charged by local drillers ranges from about $8 to $12.50 a foot.

Mathew Paust is a reporter for The Daily Press in Newport News, Va., a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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