Well, well

Is the rash of development in WNC affecting wells? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Over the past three-and-a-half years, Alexander residents Tim and Jeannie Deering have drilled a total of more than 2,100 feet but still haven’t found a reliable source of water for their four-year-old home.

“We drilled our first well in April 2003,” Tim explains. It was 810-feet deep and began to go dry in October of the same year. The well company recommended that the couple cut back on watering their new landscaping. That helped, but not enough to keep two $2,500 pumps from burning out due to low water. The Deerings drilled a second, 705-foot well in August 2006. “The water smelled strongly of sulphur,” Tim says, “and it had a flow of only a half gallon a minute.”

In November, the couple had another well drilled after consulting with dowsers. At first the 605-foot well produced a respectable eight gallons per minute. And although there was “some sulphur smell,” it soon diminished. Unfortunately, so did the flow of water. It fell quickly to three-and-a-half gallons per minute, Jeannie recalls, before running completely dry in January, when they had houseguests. “Since then we have used a hose from our neighbor’s home.”

The Deerings have one neighbor whose 240-foot well has produced 24 gallons per minute since 1979 and another whose 400-foot well delivers a little under eight g.p.m. The neighbors’ situations make their own misfortune all the more perplexing and frustrating. There is also a planned development on 54 acres just a stone’s throw from the Deerings’ third well, where the builder intends to drill individual wells for 161 units. Tim and Jeannie can’t help but worry about how those new wells will affect their own chances of hitting on a steady supply.

At the other end of Buncombe County, Fairview resident Jason Cote drilled a well at his home on Little Pisgah Mountain and came up empty—or nearly so. His 400-foot well produced so little water that an expert recommended hydro-fracturing it. That’s a process where a packer is dropped into a well to create a seal, and then water pressure is increased in the hope of opening new veins. “In my case,” laments Cote, “it opened new holes and the water drained out.”

Words of warning

Environmental engineer Jim McElduff of Altamont Environmental Services worries about long-term prospects for wells in the region.  In a presentation to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in February, he observed that development in the county depends to a great degree on groundwater because many sites lie beyond municipal water lines. Fifty-six percent of county households currently use well water, and the number is rising. “Subdivisions are going into areas where groundwater is not readily available—mountainsides with great views and beauty.”

McElduff, a former chair of the Planning Board who has worked as an environmental engineer for 22 years, warned that Buncombe County has no planning tools that recognize the potential harm of relying too heavily on wells.

“We are beginning to draw water from deeper and deeper levels where there are fewer fractures and less water,” he warned. “This is not a problem that can be solved by adding new wells or going deeper.”

One study estimated that 2.34 acres would be needed to recharge the water table for each household on a well in Guilford County, McElduff noted. Pointing out that the mountains would require even larger collection areas than the piedmont, he urged commissioners to look at where water shortages were likely to occur and take proactive measures.

View from the rigs

The professionals who punch the holes, however, don’t share McElduff’s concerns. “We have found that, on average, wells are going deeper,” says Vickie Greene of Greene Brothers Well and Pump in Asheville. “But it’s because they are moving up on the mountains. We still drill wells all the time that are 200-300 feet deep, but the average right now is about 450 feet.”

Taking a similar view, Joe Ferguson, owner of Ferguson’s Well Drilling in Leicester, says, “The only change is that people want to live higher on the hill. As dry as it is, I’ve not known a well or a spring to go dry. As for ordinary wells, I’ve not seen any change in 10 years.”

Jerry Fowler, owner of Ace Pump Services tells much the same story: “I’ve seen a little change in it. Certain places, high on mountains, high on ridges, the water level may be going down some. I’ve been doing it close to 30 years and I can’t say I’ve seen much change in the valleys.”

Following McElduff’s presentation, the commissioners asked the county’s Environmental Health Services department, which is responsible for permitting and inspection of wells and septic systems, to look into the issue.  So far, says Ken Castelloe of EHS, they haven’t found much evidence to support McElduff’s worst fears—although Castelloe did note that “historically, during extended dry periods, [owners] sometimes have to drill some of the shallow wells deeper.” EHS audited programs across the state to see if any county linked density of development to depletion of groundwater. “I don’t know if people have looked at it beyond the fact that shallow wells are more directly affected by rainfall,” he says.

At 2,100 feet, the Deerings’ place isn’t all that high, and it is situated near old homesteads with good wells that date back decades. Cote’s home, on the other hand, sits at almost 4,000 feet, but he notes that uphill neighbors have plenty of water in 250-foot wells.

Cote plans to try again since well drillers have assured him it is entirely possible that another hole 10 feet away could hit a vein. “Next time, though,” he says, “I’m going to call in a dowser.”

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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