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Drought: What’ s a Private Well Owner to Do?
By Cliff Treyens
Public Awareness Director, National Groundwater Association
 
As portions of the U.S. grapple with drought conditions, public water systems have scrambled to ensure that customers have an adequate water supply. But what’s a private well owner to do? As their own water system manager, it’s up to private well owners to make sure their water keeps flowing. Yet, the average private well owner is not trained nor equipped to diagnose drought-related issues much less address them.
 
There are important steps to take, and the place to begin is by arming yourself with some information. Here are some basic questions to ask:
 
Are water wells running dry?
Wells that are placed near the water table typically are the ones that you hear about “running dry” during droughts or when there is an increase in groundwater pumping. The reason is that the water table falls further below the surface when it is not replenished by rainfall or if more water is pumped out than is coming in. It’s like putting a straw into the top of a glass of water. If you drink and don’t lower the straw toward the glass bottom, you will end up sucking air. There is still water in the glass; your straw is just sitting above it.
 
How quickly will water levels in a well recover after a rain?
Typically, water levels fluctuate on a seasonal basis, raising in the wet months and falling in the dry months. So, a well will not recover after just one rainfall event. It takes several slow, soaking rains for the water to filter through the ground. More shallow wells may see their water levels rise more quickly with a return of rain. Deeper wells are likely to ride out a drought with no problems; but if they are affected, it will take more rainfall—maybe several months—to filter down to their depth.
 
What should I do if my well is affected?
The answer depends on your well. Is the drought worse than usual? Has this happened during pervious droughts? Have your neighbors’ wells also been affected? Have you observed other changes in your well: taste or smells in the water? Answers to these questions will determine if the problem is with a falling water table or failing well.
Deepening a well so that it is far below the water table may help to ensure a more drought-resistant water supply, although deepening a well is not a guarantee that you will get more water. Rehabilitating an existing well may also make it more efficient. Well rehabilitation is the process by which a well is restored to its most efficient condition using a variety of chemical and mechanical techniques that are often combined for optimum effectiveness.
A professional water well system contractor can do tests to see if rehabilitating measures will be successful. The well will often be shut off for 24 to 48 hours to see if the static level—the level of the water table in a well when the pump is not operating—returns to or gets near the original level. If so, rehabilitation will usually work. Before starting the project, contractors will often lower a downhole video camera into the well to make sure no other problems will be encountered.
 Hydrofracturing, another well rehabilitation technique, uses high-pressure water to open fractures in surrounding rock and thereby increase water flow. This may also improve your water supply.
 
How do I go about getting my drilled well deepened?
Contact a local, reputable water well system contractor who is familiar with local groundwater conditions and state-of-the-art well construction methods. State and local governments may have contractor licensing and well construction laws. For additional information, you may wish to contact a local National Ground Water Association member in your area by visiting www.wellowner.org or contact your state groundwater or water well association.
 
Will nearby, larger well systems impact home wells?
The increased pumping of larger capacity well systems during a drought may cause the groundwater level to be drawn down. The declining groundwater level may then be below your pump’ s intake. If that is the case, the answer again is to drill deeper.
 
Question: Does the drought impact groundwater quality?
In general, there is no adverse impact on overall groundwater quality from a drought. If a homeowner drills a deeper well in response to a drought, the well owner may end up with more mineralized water. This is because the water has been in the ground longer and may have taken on some of the characteristics of the surrounding rock formations. The homeowner may also gain water quality benefits from a deeper, properly constructed well. These deeper wells are better protected from surface human-induced contamination sources, such as lawn fertilizer applications or accidental spills.
 
How long can a drought be expected to last?
Droughts vary in severity and length. Visit the National Integrated Drought Information System Web site at www.drought.gov for information on drought in your area.
 
Groundwater Conservation Matters
Water use habits are another issue to consider. The adage waste not, want not is never more apt than when it comes to water use during a drought. Practically all water users, regardless of whether they are on a public water system or private wells, can learn to use water more wisely.
 
Wise water use is both a long-term and a short-term issue. Americans are some of the largest users of water, per capita, in the world, using 83.3 billion gallons of groundwater every day—the equivalent of 3,059 12-oz. cans for every man, woman, and child in the nation. Outdoor water use varies greatly across the country. For instance, in California, 44 percent of all household water use is outdoors, while in Pennsylvania only seven percent is used outdoors.
 
 
Regardless of geographic location, almost three-quarters of water used inside the home occurs in the bathroom, with 41 percent used for toilet flushing and 33 percent for bathing. The remainder of indoor water use is divided between clothes washing and kitchen use, including dish washing, according to the U.S. EPA.
 
Groundwater and Drought: The Big Picture
Approximately 75 percent of community water systems and nearly all of rural America use groundwater supplied water systems. In many parts of the country, surface water supplies are inadequate or unavailable, and groundwater is the only practical source of water supply. Groundwater feeds streams and rivers, especially during periods of drought or low flow. Approximately 42 percent of agricultural irrigation water is ground water.
 
The water shortages of recent drought years coupled with the increasing cases of surface and groundwater contamination warn that we stand at a critical juncture regarding the availability of adequate water supplies.
 
Because groundwater is hidden, this resource is often forgotten or misunderstood. Yet few would argue that it is important to develop and use groundwater in a way that meets current and future beneficial purposes without causing unacceptable consequences. To do that, it is helpful to understand: a) the factors that contribute to local, regional, or statewide groundwater shortages, b) the strategies that can be implemented to promote groundwater availability, and c) what resources or tools are needed to implement these strategies successfully.
 
This requires public understanding of the:
  • Factors affecting groundwater supplies and use
  • Methods that promote the wise use of groundwater supplies
  • Need to determine strategies that promote groundwater availability
  • Need for cooperative efforts to fill data gaps and undertake priority research
  • Need for increased collaborative educational efforts
  
While states are gathering the necessary data to inform decision making, no state has met its groundwater data collection goals. A small minority of states responding to a National Groundwater Association survey are very confident that they know the potential yield from all of the state’ s major aquifers. We lack fundamental data necessary to adequately understand the nation’ s groundwater resources and make informed decisions regarding its use and management.
 
The federal government is currently playing a vital role. While actual groundwater management decision making is most effective when taking into account site-specific considerations, federal funding of cooperative data collection and aquifer mapping leverages the expertise and resources of the federal government with partners around the country.
 
Federal support of cooperative data collection of water quality, aquifer mapping, and pertinent scientific research is also important. Data and research provide the underpinning for sound local water management decision making that advances the well-being of the nation’ s citizens, economy, and environment.
 
To learn more about drought and other issues related to private well ownership, visit the National Ground Water Association’ s Web site Wellowner.org (www.wellowner.org).