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Water Wells Digging*


In Central Maryland, It's Drill vs. Drought

Heavy Equipment Battles Rock-Hard Earth in Quest for Well Water

By Michael E. Ruane

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 16, 2002; Page A01

For eight hours, the carbide-tipped drill bit hammered its way through the Piedmont beneath Mary Prowell's front yard.

During two days, the 60-pound fist-shaped bit battered the rock 2,100 times a minute, exhaling a fine gray powder of pulverized stone, dry as dust, as it ate a six-inch-wide hole 400 feet below her Howard County property.

Yesterday morning, when the effort had yielded but a few drops from the drought-depleted aquifer, the drillers brought in a high-pressure pump and a 6,000-gallon tanker truck to shock the subterranean shale into giving up its precious commodity. In the end, it did so, grudgingly.

Finding water these days in parched central Maryland isn't easy. Months into one of the worst droughts in recent memory, and with the spring "leaf out" heralding hot weather and worsening conditions, the hunt for water is harsh and urgent.

Much of central Maryland, including the part of Howard County where Prowell, 51, a veterinarian, has a small horse farm, was placed under a drought emergency April 5 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D).

Despite moderate precipitation last month, the rest of the Washington region, as well as most of the East Coast, continues to drift deeper into a drought that becomes more serious with each rainless step toward summer.

In Virginia, ground-water levels measured in late March had not responded to the month's rains and remained well below normal conditions, the U.S. Geological Survey in Richmond said yesterday.

There was scant rainfall over the weekend -- 0.01 inch Saturday and 0.05 inch Sunday at Reagan National Airport, according to meteorologist John Margraf of the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington office in Sterling.

Precipitation readings at National have fallen to more than 14 inches below normal for the period starting in September, he said. And the forecast for the next few days is for summerlike weather that just makes things worse.

Inevitably, among the first to feel the effects of drought are residents who rely on wells for water, especially those who have older, shallower wells of about 100 feet or less, experts have said. Maryland has about 800,000 private wells, according to the state Department of the Environment.

The lack of precipitation during the winter had an especially dire effect record-setting, in some cases -- on the underground water that feeds wells, officials have said.

Glendening said the state received 270 well-replacement requests from November to January, compared with 126 the previous year, and local well drillers say business has been brisk.

Wells are not necessarily going dry, drillers say, as much as their output is dropping dramatically, reducing flow at times to a trickle or less.

Such was the case for Prowell, who lives in the rolling farm country just south of Mount Airy.

"When we had the drought three years ago, I had a problem with my water, but I was able to manage," Prowell said last week, as she stood behind her modest ranch house, away from the din of the towering drilling rig in her front yard.

"This time, I've had trouble where I've run out of water a few times," she said. Doing a full load of laundry is risky, she said, as is filling the water trough out back for her horses.

Prowell, whose practice is in Beltsville, said she has lived in her home about nine years. Its original 100-foot well, sunk in the front yard in 1973, once produced a robust 12 gallons of water a minute, she said.

Now, she said, "I have a flow rate of a pint a minute, which is not very good. If things get worse this summer, I'll probably have a flow rate of zero. I'm really worried about it. I think I could manage if things didn't get worse, but things probably are going to get worse."

Normally, drillers would have simply deepened her old well. But because the drilling rig was higher than overhead utility lines strung in her yard since the old well was built, a new well had to be drilled.

On Friday, the hunt for new water began.

Prowell had hired the venerable water-drilling firm of L.F. Easterday Co. of Mount Airy to do the work. About noon Friday, a 60,000-pound truck-mounted drilling rig, powered by a 500-horsepower engine, eased into her front yard, raised its 30-foot tower and began.

After starting a 10-inch-wide hole with a log-sized bit that resembled a high-tech egg-beater, veteran driller Bruce Thompson, 44, and his helper, Gerry Henning, 26, began the real work with a six-inch-wide steel drill bit at the end of a rotating jackhammer.

No one knew how deep the water might be: One hundred feet? Two hundred feet? Three hundred?

The aquifer can be hard to find under normal circumstances, said George Easterday, the company vice president, as the drill chattered into the rock late Friday. In some places, it might be very near the surface. A few feet away it might dive, as if a whale, hundreds of feet deep.

As time passed, and Thompson and Henning fed length after length of steel pipe into the hole, the rig's horizontal exhaust stack blew the pulverized dirt rock into a pile in the yard.

At first, the color changed regularly with the depth -- a good sign, Easterday said, that progress was being made and water might be near. Orange turned to brown, then to tan, then back to brown.

Suddenly, the color changed to a gunpowder gray and stayed that way, and the drill's headway slowed almost to a stop. For hours, the bit slowly hammered deeper into the earth. Thompson used a sieve to search the grit for flint, another sign of nearby water. There was little. By day's end Friday, the drill had reached 260 feet, finding negligible water.

In her house, Prowell worried: Would they find water? And how much would it all cost? (In the end, about $7,000, the company said.)

Yesterday, when the 400-foot depth was reached and only about a pint of water a minute was produced, Easterday brought in the high-pressure pump and a tanker load of 6,000 gallons of water to "hydrofracture" the rock in the hole.

It worked. By afternoon, the well was producing a gallon and a half a minute. "It's not a whole lot of water," Easterday said. "But it's more than what they got now."

On that spot, in these times, he said, "I'll take it any day."

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