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With Midwest drought, well users find faucets are running dry

Tuesday, August 14, 2012 | 6:04 p.m. CDT

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After months of record-breaking heat and drought, many rural Americans who rely on wells for water are getting an unwelcome surprise when they turn on their faucets: The tap has run dry.

The lack of running water can range from a manageable nuisance to an expensive headache. Homeowners and businesses are being forced to buy thousands of gallons from private suppliers, to drill deeper or to dig entirely new wells.

Mary Lakin's family drained the last of its well water late last month in the small northern Indiana community of Parr. Since then, Lakin, her husband and two children have bathed and done laundry at relatives' homes and filled buckets from their backyard pool every time they need to flush a toilet.

Having water is "just something you take for granted," she said. "It's a big hassle, but we're surviving."

No one tracks the number of wells that go dry, but state and local governments and well diggers and water haulers report many more dead wells than in a typical summer across a wide swath of the Midwest, from Nebraska to Indiana and Wisconsin to Missouri.

It's not unusual for rural wells to stop producing toward the end of a hot summer. But this year is different. Some of the same wells that are known to run dry in August or September instead ran out in June.

Water suppliers and well drillers across the Midwest say they're working long hours to keep up with demand.

"It's seven days a week, man," said Carl Marion, a water hauler in Athens, Ill., north of Springfield. "I work until 12 or 1 o'clock every single night."

Wells are typically drilled 30 or 50 feet down. Some go hundreds of feet before hitting water. And the deeper the well, the more expensive it is, with costs starting at several thousand dollars and climbing in extreme cases into tens of thousands.

In the summer, when lawns, gardens, pools and livestock all drive up use, water levels can drop below a well's pump. If rain doesn't replenish the supply, sometimes the only option is to drill deeper or dig an entirely new well.

Older wells are particularly vulnerable because they may not hold water as efficiently or they may have been dug in places where most of the water is gone.

"It's sort of Darwinism," said George Roadcap, a hydro-geologist with the Illinois Water Survey. "The weak wells get shaken out at a time like this. Many people are using wells that are a hundred years old."

In other cases, well owners have hurt themselves with careless water usage, said Richard Hubert, who owns Hubert Water Hauling Service in Smithville, Ill., about 20 miles southeast of St. Louis.

"We've had a lot of people who were silly enough to take their water out of their well and put it into their pool. Or they ran around watering stuff when we've been dry for 10 weeks," Hubert said. "I don't know what you're thinking when you've got a shallow well, and it hasn't rained."

In many places, the effects of heavy water use go beyond an individual well owner. A large water user such as a farmer irrigating fields or filling livestock ponds can accelerate the drawdown for nearby households.

That appears to have happened to the Lakins and their neighbors, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which recently reviewed about a dozen dry wells in the area.

"In each of them, it was pretty obvious they were being impacted by pumping," said Mark Basch, head of the agency's water rights and use section.

Under Indiana water law, the department will determine to what extent large users are responsible for nearby wells running dry and assess them a proportional share of the cost of the solution, Basch said.

In Missouri, state officials said last month they would help farmers pay to keep wells pumping using deeper drilling or other means. Through the first week of August, they had agreed to spend more than $18 million on 3,700 wells.

Many homeowners hire water haulers to deliver weekly shipments straight into their wells to temporarily restore the flow.

Since June, Pamela Lashley has been paying $130 to $150 a week to sustain the four wells at Country Estate Kennel in Shiloh, Ill., about 15 miles southeast of St. Louis. The kennel owner has to spend the money to hose down dog runs, launder bedding and fill water bowls.

"It certainly adds to our boarding costs," she said. "It's not something that I put on my clients. It's something that I absorb."

She once considered connecting to a nearby municipal water system, but the initial hookup cost — $28,000 — quickly changed her mind. In the short run, water hauling is far cheaper.

Marion, who drives a water-delivery truck in the area around his home about 15 miles north of Springfield, charges $60 for 2,100 gallons, enough to refill many of the wells he serves for about a week.

A typical American household uses up to 2,800 gallons a week, though the figure can vary widely by location and other factors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lawren Tucker of Petersburg, one of Marion's customers, is paying for water with money he would normally use to have his pasture mowed. But with the drought, there's no need for that.

"We are no different than a lot of folks around here. A lot of the farmers in the area have been hauling their own water," Tucker said. "It's part of country life in a drought."


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