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Well Runs Dry*

Dec 15, 2002

What to do when well runs dry



When a Powhatan couple's water level dropped so low they had to wash clothes at a Laundromat, they decided to get a new well. They called a bunch of drilling companies, asked a lot of questions, settled on their best choice, then signed a contract.

The driller was "open and honest," saying it didn't know how deep it would have to go to find water, said the wife. Still, based on the company's experience in the area - wells rarely exceeded 400 feet, it said - the couple figured on paying about $4,500.

It didn't happen.

"They went 900 feet and there wasn't any water," the woman said. "We had to pay $9,000 for a hole in the ground." After pocketing that amount before agreeing to drill any further, the company tried another spot and hit water at 300 feet - for another $3,000.

Hooking up the pump system would have cost them $2,000 more for a grand total of $14,000, the woman said. But, her husband hooked it up. So, their total bill was $12,000.

"It really devastated us," she said. "It should have cost about $4,500."

Is your well low or dry, even after the recent snowstorm and rains? You are not alone.

"Wells going dry is still a problem in the State of Virginia, even with the recent rains," said Donald Alexander, director, division of sewerage and water services, Virginia Health Department in Richmond.

"Over 6,000 wells have gone dry from July 1 to October 15," said Shea Hollifield, deputy director at the Department of Housing & Community Develop- ment in Richmond.

Most of the wells that have gone dry are bored wells, which go a couple of hundred feet down to, but not through, the bedrock.

There is good news, though.

Statewide, said Duke Price, VHD's onsite program manager, the health department received 1,750 well replacement applications in July; 1,913 in August; 1,460 in September and 1,218 in October. But, applications dropped to 531 in November. "That's a pretty significant drop from October."

Here are some things to know if your well runs low or goes dry:

Only God knows where the water is. Neither the health department nor the drilling company knows. That was frustrating for the Powhatan couple, who thought the health department had a method of finding water in exchange for the $75 permit fee they paid. "I had no idea all they did was walk 100 feet from your home and say, 'OK, this is a good spot,'" the woman said. "We could have come out of the house and walked 100 feet and saved $75. What skills would you have to have other than count to 100?"

There are drilling parameters. Property setbacks and drainfields limit where wells can be drilled on a property, especially on smaller lots, said Robert Royall of Royall Pump & Well Co. Inc. in Powhatan. Wells cannot be dug near drainfields or too close to the house.

The devil is in the depths. Well drillers charge by the foot, and then add the extras. A 300-foot well could cost $4,700, said Royall. A 980-feet well might cost $12,000. Your well might cost $3,000, when a neighbor just spent $10,000, added Lori Anderson of Anderson Well Drilling in Amelia.

Hurry up and wait. Many well drillers have long waiting lists, which means you might not have water in your house for months. Also, emergency cases might get jumped ahead of you. As of last week, Anderson Well Drilling had a 12-week waiting list of 40-60 wells. Curtis Drilling was backed up 60 wells. Fred Jones Well Co. in Appomattox was 200 wells behind. Royall was 91 wells behind.

Can you stick it out? Fred Jones said if you're getting enough water to get by on, "wait a while." By spring, the water tables might be higher. "By April, most all these wells will be recovered if we can get some more rainfall."

Talk it out with the driller. Ask what happens if they don't find water. See if they'll give a discount if they drill a dry hole. Many do. Ask if they'll give you one or more holes for free. Most don't, but some do, said Gary Renger of the Powhatan County Health Department. "The problem is the well driller has got a million-dollar piece of equipment hammering a hole in the ground," he said. "He's got himself and a helper. He might spend a day there trying to get water. He has an investment in that. He can't just spend his time drilling dry holes for nothing."

Well drillers say they don't find water only about 5 percent of the time. "Sometimes you have to drill several holes," said Curtiss Drilling co-owner Jan Bordewyk.

Study the contract. "My advice would be to read and understand the contract before you sign it and before you make any steps toward putting it in motion," said the Powhatan woman. If you don't understand it, "get somebody to break it down."

She said the contract she and her husband signed clearly stated that if the company drilled and did not hit water, they would still have to pay. But, "we just assumed they would come in and hit water and we'd pay the $4,500 that we thought it would cost us."

Consider a drilled well instead of a bored well. They're the deep ones that go down through the rock and tap into underground aquifers. You probably won't have to worry about your water supply in the future, said Royall. A bored well, the shallow type with the wide mushroom top, "generally gets its water from clay-based soil above the bedrock," he said. "It's very dependent on annual precipitation to make up its supply. That's why when a drought comes through, you have stress or a lack of water."

Make do with two shallow wells. If you have a weak well making some water and you drill another and find only a small amount of water, "it's a good idea to tie the two together," said Jones. At his company, $3,000 will get you a bored well with 10 feet of water guaranteed, he said.

Get on the list for a free well. If your household income is low enough, you might qualify for a free well under the state's new Dry Well Replacement Program administered by the Department of Housing & Community Development in Richmond. Call your health department to see if your locality participates in the program. Apply there, not at the DHCD, which only doles out the funds. Read the rules and see what income limits apply at www.dhcd.state.va.us. Click "Dry Well Replacement Program" Or, call for information (804) 371-7000.

Hollifield estimates the $2.5 million program for nonurban localities could help 400-450 people get new wells.

Contractors charge what the market will bear. There are no regulations limiting what they can charge.

Ask for a break if you're broke. "I've heard that several well diggers lowered their price a little because of a hardship," Renger said.

Fix your water leaks. Leaky, drippy faucets and commodes waste hundreds of gallons of precious water, said Royall. Is the toilet 'running?' Take some food coloring and put a couple drops into the commode. Check the toilet bowl in about 20 minutes. If the water is clear, there's no leak. If there's coloring in the bowl, the commode is leaking.

Start conserving water at the first sign of stress.

The Powhatan couple said they do not blame their well company for what happened. "I'm just blaming the circumstances," the woman said. "I didn't have the knowledge I have now. I wish I did."

Consumer Watch appears weekly except for the first Sunday of the month, when The Times-Dispatch publishes the Small Business column. If you have consumer concerns, call Iris Taylor at (804) 649-6349 or write to her c/o Richmond Times-Dispatch Business News Department, P.O. Box 85333, Richmond, VA 23293. Her e-mail address is itaylor@timesdispatch.com

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