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A Well Ends Well: An Exurban Fable

Monday, April 2, 2018
Stephen R. Dujack

Stephen R. Dujack

Editor, The Environmental Forum®

“April showers bring May flowers,” the saying goes – but we also rely heavily on groundwater. In honor of the changing seasons, Vibrant Environment recounts a tale from The Environmental Forum of neighborhood water woes.

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Living in the country means dealing with nature as well as the natural resources needed to manage your home. You can walk from my back porch near Charlottesville to Shenandoah National Park and only cross one minor road in the process, meaning we have black bears in our woody enclave. A common trope on our Nextdoor.com web site consists of reports about bears attacking bird feeders and garbage cans.

When I moved in, I cut down more than thirty invasive and very ugly Trees of Heaven. The forest had its revenge. An arborist whom I had hired noted that a huge elm had a split trunk and was destined to come down in a windstorm. He advised removing the tree. When I balked because it shaded my house, he offered to cable the two trunks together as a safety measure.

Six years later, I managed to sleep through the 2012 Derecho, a fierce summer windstorm that came out of nowhere one night and leveled trees throughout our region, cutting off not only power but access to our neighborhood. The elm came down, and one trunk would have taken me out in my bed but for the cable, which caused the tree instead to rotate and neatly alight on my lawn with no damage.

What happens when the neighborhood is short on water?

As I then learned from the Derecho, we are responsible for our own energy supply. Power was out for six days after that storm. Since I have a well, that meant no water for drinking or washing. It also meant no wastewater, since my sewage drainfield is fed by an electric pump. Neighbors shared the little supply of water that we had in bottles. So I installed a generator and waited for the next natural disaster with equanimity.

It was another attack from a tree that almost did me in. A mimosa on the other side of the house fell on my roof as I was actually watching from the porch. It was during a thunderstorm to end all such storms, and the 60-foot trunk fell on the gable, then rolled off the edge without damaging the roof or any of the expensive landscaping below. I was twice blessed. However, I found out afterwards that this particular species regrows rapidly from a stump. It has been five years, and there is now another huge trunk in the same location. We have an uneasy truce, since it knows its fate could be that of the Trees of Heaven.

But you don’t need a storm of huge magnitude to find out that nature has the upper hand out here. For instance, this past weekend I turned on my kitchen tap and water only dribbled out. I found a dripping bathroom faucet and assigned it the blame: I had emptied the well again. It would take a few hours to recharge.

The buzz on Nextdoor confirms that water supply is a serious issue in our neighborhood. Half of the houses, the original ones, are supplied by a small and antiquated private system. The houses built since are all on wells. The old system is on the verge of breaking down permanently, and there is a lot of discussion about the effects on our water table if there are suddenly scores of new holes piercing the aquifer. The folks with wells, the new people, are arguing for a doctrine of prior appropriation. The ones on the old system argue for equitable sharing of a common resource. Everyone knows not only what the word groundwater means but also much of the state law regulating access.

But three hours later, the kitchen sink still dribbled when the faucet was turned, confirming that the well wasn’t recharging. So I called J.B. the plumber, who was glad to come to my house for an issue that didn’t involve a stopped toilet. (His business card reads “Lead Plumbing Technician,” with no irony intended.) He found that the well and pump were performing as designed. As the dribbling sink confirmed, the lack was water. J.B. always warms to a plumbing disaster. He gave me a few worrying tales of folks with permanently depleted groundwater and insisted I immediately call a company that could reconstitute my well with expensive hydraulic fracturing, the same process as in energy extraction.

Instead I called a water-hauling company, and they poured hundreds of gallons down the well in an effort to get it working again. Then I checked my kitchen sink. It was still only a dribble.

The groundwater had been depleted and the aquifer sucked up what we had poured down the well. I might be able to recover the well through fracking, or I might have to drill a new one. I would become a warning story in J.B.’s roster.

By chance, I turned on the bathroom tap that had caused all the problem, and it coughed then ran vigorously. So did the faucet in my laundry room. But not my kitchen tap. I became suspicious and pulled off the aerator. It had become jammed with sediment. Once cleared, the faucet ran fine.

I had never been out of water, my well had never been in danger of failure — all the agita was the result of a false alarm caused by the running bathroom sink and the stopped kitchen aerator.

We are responsible for our own survival in my neighborhood. Nature has the upper hand out here, and it often holds it cards close to the vest.

This piece originally appeared in the November-December 2017 issue of The Environmental Forum.

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