Area wells weather dry conditions

Newer, deeper sites, beneficial geology noted

Western Howard

October 25, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

A recent run of rainy weather will not be enough to alleviate the ground-water shortage brought on by this year's severe drought, but residents of western Howard County can find some reassurance in the news that area wells are proving to be fairly resilient.

The Maryland Department of the Environment reported above-normal rainfall in the central region of the state for last month. But over the past year, Howard County has had one of the lowest precipitation rates in that region - 65 percent of normal - and ground-water levels throughout the area remain in the emergency range.

The eastern part of Howard County is on Baltimore's water supply, while homes and businesses west of a zigzagging boundary line rely on individual wells.

County officials report that Howard has required fewer replacement wells than have surrounding counties. Since January, 43 drought-related replacement wells have been approved by the Howard County Health Department, said Frank A. Skinner, director of environmental health. By comparison, Harford County had more than 150 permit applications for replacement wells in the summer, and Carroll County saw 100 new well requests in August alone.

Skinner said one reason might be that the majority of the wells in Howard County are less than 25 years old. Eight thousand new wells have been drilled since 1980, said Skinner, compared with 6,000 to 7,000 wells in use before that. New wells are more likely to be deeper - some are 200 to 300 feet deep - and many inadequate, 20-to-30-foot-deep wells were replaced when drought conditions occurred in 1990, Skinner said.

Helpful geology

In addition, he said, western Howard is "blessed with the geology" that keeps water flowing.

Many people picture wells dipping into one continuous underground reservoir of water, said Jay Prager, acting program manger of ground-water permits program for the state Department of the Environment. But the Piedmont geology in Western Maryland consists of layers of rock cut by many cracks and openings that can hold water. A successful well cuts through a number of those fissures.

People do hit dry spots when drilling wells. And officials agree that the drought has reduced the overall water supply significantly. But, Prager said, "A lot of times there is plenty of water - it might be a question of where and how do you get to it."

Also, he said, once a well is established, another well at a reasonable distance is not likely to pull directly from the same water supply. The area around a well from which water is drawn, called a zone of depression, "is measured in feet, not hundreds of feet," Prager said.

He cautioned that conditions vary locally, and said that wells placed only a few feet apart can certainly affect one another. But, he said, it is rare for wells to directly affect neighboring wells.

Prager also said that adding thousands of new wells or community wells to an area clearly can have a larger impact. But no individual well - or even a housing development - is likely to reduce the overall ground-water supply. Community wells are not allowed in Howard County, and the Department of the Environment has to test water conditions and approve any developments of 10 units or more.

Information dispersed

That was reassuring news to John Coll, who moved from Columbia to a home near West Friendship 18 years ago.

He was looking forward to the day that the public water supply would reach him, he said. But now that it is clear such a plan is not in sight, he is pleased to hear that wells in western Howard are largely reliable.

He got the information at a meeting over the weekend, organized by District 5 Councilman Allan H. Kittleman. The councilman said his office has received numerous calls from residents concerned about wells, and he wanted people to be able to ask state and county officials for informed opinions.

Coll said that when houses were built on what used to be a farm across the street from his home, he was concerned about their potential impact on him. But his water supply remained unaffected. And now, he said, "I have the facts. ... I wouldn't worry about them."

The issue of extending public water and sewage systems to the west is a contentious one. While some people with shallow wells or failing septic systems might want the same public amenities as other county residents, there is a fear that development will expand if public systems are available.

"People are afraid [that] once the first line goes across, the area will be open to development," said Stephen Swanhart, executive vice president of the Howard County Citizens Association.

Within certain areas, greater housing density would be possible if properties did not need room for wells and septic fields, said Swanhart, who owns Cyder Roofing and Construction in Mount Airy.

Prager and other officials continue to encourage conservation. Individuals with older homes and shallow wells will need to keep an eye on consumption.

He understands people's worries: "People feel very strongly, very personally about their water," he said.

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