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In drought, even wells turn dry

Narrow, shallow wells not made to draw from dropping water levels have area residents hauling water and drillers scrambling to meet demand.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000


Evelyn Jordan was covered with suds when her well went dry.

"I was taking a shower and I was all soaped up when the water went thppppttt," said Jordan, a dietary supervisor for an assisted living facility. The well at her home in Shady Hills stopped working about a month ago. "I had to go rinse off in the dog's water. Thank God I'd just filled it."

Jordan's well is just one of what drillers say may be hundreds of wells gone dry as the Tampa Bay region suffers through the driest season on record. The drought has created a backlog for some drillers, who say they've stopped taking on new work in order to restore water to residents with existing wells.

"These are people that are totally out of water," said Tim Lubee, who owns Tim Lubee's Pro Lawns.

"They're taking showers at truck stops and are hauling five-gallon buckets of water from the swimming pool to flush the toilet."

How bad is the problem and where are the wells drying up? Drillers point to parts of Pasco (Shady Hills, Hudson and Wesley Chapel) and Hernando (Weeki Wachee) counties, where much of the area is served by private wells. But one driller said he also gets three or four calls a week from the Riverview area southeast of Tampa, where he has seen the water table drop to 100 feet below the land surface.

When Jordan first had her well dug 18 years ago, the water table was at six feet below the surface. This time, the well driller told her he didn't hit water until he drilled 42 feet, she said.

Tampa Bay Water officials need another $1-million to replace all the private wells that are going dry near the utility's well fields -- an increase they blame on the drought. Last fiscal year, Tampa Bay Water replaced 132 private wells. They have replaced 113 wells this fiscal year, and that number is expected to climb to 190. And a Southwest Florida Water Management District spokesman said 10 of that agency's monitoring wells are at record lows.

Drillers say most of the affected private drinking wells appear to be older, 2-inch wells that are too small for submersible pumps and that stop working when the water table dips below about 25 or 30 feet. Those wells are designed for water table levels of 15 or 20 feet, Lubee said. When those wells dry up, homeowners must have wider and deeper wells drilled and fitted with a more powerful pump. The whole package can cost from about $1,600 to several thousand dollars.

Given the sheer volume of calls drillers say they are receiving -- Sparkling Water Wells' owner Everett Decker took 33 calls in three days last week -- drillers say the waiting period to restore water could stretch to up to four weeks if the drought continues. It takes about two days to drill a well, he said.

"I can't even get with all them," Decker said.

Frank Emerson was lucky. The Brooksville resident and Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative employee only had to wait about a week to get a new well.

"We're hauling water from my mother's house, and we're taking showers there," Emerson said. He has lived in his house for 22 years, and this is the first time his well has lost water.

"It's an inconvenience when you're used to getting up in the morning and taking a shower and having your coffee."

Wake-up call

The vision of Emerson coming home, turning on the tap and getting nothing both horrifies and vindicates desalination supporters such as Pasco County Commissioner Steve Simon, who said the dry wells should be a wake-up call for residents to demand more drought-resistant sources of water.

"The anti-desal folks are going to realize there is going to be a public outcry over this," Simon said, referring to a group in Hillsborough that's fighting a proposed desal plant there.

"They've got to realize they can no longer rely on groundwater."

Simon has convinced his fellow Tampa Bay Water board members to amend the master water plan to study the prospects for a second regional desal plant. Tampa Bay Water, formerly the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, has until 2007 to reduce groundwater pumping by about 40 percent, most of it in Pasco.

Hernando County Commissioner Pat Novy, another water activist, assigns some of the blame for her county's dry wells to the drainage structures in the Green Swamp she says prevent proper recharge of the aquifer. That, combined with the drought, explains the phone calls she's been getting from folks who must replace their wells, Novy said.

Well drillers who have worked in the area report they have seen the water table decline steadily in the last few years. Most blame the groundwater pumping in the area, compounded by the lack of adequate rain for two years running.

"Within one year, off of Hudson Avenue (the water table) dropped five feet," Decker said.

Teina Cain, who runs Cain's Well Drilling with her husband, Rick, worries about how far the water table will drop.

"What's going to happen if our freshwater tables drop below sea level?" Cain said. That might lead to saltwater getting into the freshwater supply, making it undrinkable.

Cain said her company has stopped drilling any irrigation wells so they can focus on restoring water to homes that have lost it. Other drillers say they've temporarily stopped drilling for new construction, too.

Although the number of permits Swiftmud issued for private domestic wells was about the same for April 2000 as it was in April 1999, water district spokesman Michael Molligan said his agency doesn't distinguish between new construction wells and replacement wells for those that have been destroyed by the drought. Although Swiftmud can't track how many of the older, 2-inch wells are sputtering out, Molligan said he's not surprised to hear how busy the well drillers are.

But Charles LoRe, owner of Avery Well Drilling, said part of the problem this year is the normal seasonal drop in the water table -- which can be as great as five feet -- that follows every dry season. It's just worse this year because of this year's drought and last year's lower-than-normal rainfall.

"I think it's more severe, but I don't feel it's unusual for this time of year. We don't get our rains until June," LoRe said, adding that will be too late to help the people whose wells already have stopped working.

Gilliam Clarke, who has made a name for herself fighting the pumping in her area, said she knows of several people who have had to dig new wells in the Wesley Chapel area.

"When you've got the water table reduced so drastically over the last couple of years and you don't have the rainfall, wells are going to go dry," Clarke said. She's seen foxes coming out in the middle of the day looking for water, but she doesn't think rainfall alone will stop the problem.

"It's going to continue until people realize human life is more important than grass."

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