Friday, August 13, 2010

Water from a Deeper Well - Seriously?

The sun burned hot, it burned my eyes
Burned so hot I thought I'd died
Thought I'd died and gone to hell
Lookin' for the water from a deeper well
I went to the river but the river was dry
I fell to my knees an I looked to the sky
I looked to the sky and the spring rain fell
I saw the water from a deeper well

- Deeper Well, Emmylou Harris - Wrecking Ball

So my Dad outed me as a blogger on Facebook, and now I guess I have to keep posting in case anyone actually checks in.  If a blog is posted on the internet and no one is around to read it, does it make a sound? ...

Ah well, lets talk about wells.  One of the less appealing features of life in Cape St. Claire is that the nearly 3000 households in this community all get their drinking water from wells.  Yes, that's right, we're all on well water.  Irony, acidic, sulphur-stinking well water.  When we first moved to the Cape, I was stunned to learn that we would have a well.  It was inconceivable to me that a middle class neighborhood in the 1990s would not have public water.  In the California track home suburbs where I grew up, I never knew anyone with a well.  The only experience I had with well water was when I visited my grandparents in rural South Carolina.  The old circa 1900 farmhouse had toilets with rust rings, and we smelled like a fork after showering, but surely not in the Annapolis area in 1993.

In the state of Maryland, about 16% of households are on well water which is higher than the national average, but I'm pretty sure that number must be higher for Anne Arundel County.  The best I could find was this 2007 map of county water service:

AA County Water Service

The waterfront areas (older in many cases) seem to account for a lot of the wells (gold for "planned" water service, blue for "existing").   Many of the newer cookie cutter neighborhoods have public water - in fact the Atlantis community (little blue sliver on the map within Cape St. Claire) which is completely surrounded by Cape St. Claire has public water - and public water even reaches within a half mile of us to Broadneck High School and down to our shopping center and elementary school, but not so for us.  That's what we get for wanting an "eclectic" (not Monterey, CA eclectic but more "redn'ecklectic") neighborhood.

SO when moving to the Cape became a reality, I quickly planned to get up to speed on owning a well.  Wells have been around for a very long time.  The earliest discoveries date back to something like 8000 BC, and they are documented throughout the earliest of written records.  I tried to find some enthusiasm for well ownership by telling myself I was sharing a common bond with ancient civilizations that drew their water from the earth.  That didn't get me very far.  Even the Romans figured out public water...

Our first house in the Cape on Latrobe had a wellhead in the front yard and some kind of mysterious chemical tank under the stairs that I never really took the time to figure out.  I was still unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the whole notion of a well and just hoped it would do its job.  The well part did, but the chemical tank, which was supposed to neutralize the acidity of our water, was either not set up properly, or we weren't using it right.  It took me a while to figure out that my rashy skin was a result of the very low pH of our well water, and even once I made the connection, I wasn't really sure how to go about fixing it.  I might have tried harder if the kids had been affected by it, but they apparently inherited their father's tougher skin.  I just slathered on an arsenal of lotions and steroid creams when my skin tried to bubble off my body.

Seven years and oceans of lotion later, we moved to our second house in the Cape, and it wasn't an option to turn a blind eye to the well situation.  In order to close on a mortgage, a house's well has to pass a potability test, and the one in the new house did not.  Acid was bad enough, but now we were dealing with bacteria.  The seller attempted to "bleach" the well (I'm more familiar with the whole bleaching procedure now, but at the time, it seemed just wrong to pour bleach in your water source).  In the process, he managed to break the pump, and still, we had bacteria, so we split the difference on an ultraviolet light to fry the bacteria.  We would still be drinking bacteria, but dead bacteria.  Got our mortgage and blocked out any thoughts of drinking dead bacteria.

Now this second Cape house came with a pretty major water treatment setup (see picture below), and I resolved that I would finally embrace well ownership and learn how to manage our water quality.  This involved learning how to:  change two different types of carbon filters, add salt cubes to the water softener to remove the iron, replace the bateria-busting UV light, add sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) to the chemical feed tank to neutralize the acidity, and then some bleach to the tank for good measure (helps keep that sulphur smell at bay).  In addition, we installed a reverse osmosis system in our kitchen for extra drinking water filtration (that's a whole maintenance nightmare of its own).  I like to believe that all the effort results in reasonably safe drinking water, but it's kind of a leap of faith.  I do know that I'm no longer rashy, and I'm pretty handy with a water test kit now.

The things I still HATE about having a well:
  • Hearing the telltale chink, chink, chink of the chemical feed pump when the tank is out of solution followed by the aforementioned fork smell and crispy orange hair after a shower
  • Hair color that always fades to orange.
  • Water softener breakdowns resulting in thick orange rusty water in our sinks and toilets of biblical proportions.
  • Losing water pressure when the power goes out.  We each get one flush before we have to plug in the generator.
  • Spilling sodium hydroxide on my hands and feeling it eat my flesh (the inspiration for today's blog post!)
  • The sickening list of possibilities when we lose water pressure.  Is the pump not working?  Is the footer broken?  Is the well going dry/water level too low?  Is the pressure tank failing?  Is the chemical tank leaking?  None of these are easy or cheap fixes, and we've experienced them all at one time or another.
When we remodeled our house a couple of years ago, we had to dig a new well because the old well head (once we found it below our existing deck buried three feet below the ground in a cheese cloth that resembled the Shroud of Turin) was too close to the addition - under it actually.  As bad as all the above repair jobs had been, none was as hideous as digging a new well.  Talk about a dirty job, and despite hitting and cutting both phone and electric lines, and drilling into an old buried septic tank (thank God public sewer was put in before my days in the Cape!), digging it was the easy part.  The well digging rig bored down about 198 feet to the Magothy Aquifer (or perhaps the Upper Patapsco?) to reach our new water source.  The fun came next with months of testing and repeated bleachings of the well and our household pipes to try and kill the ever present bacteria.  We finally managed to kill the dern bacteria, but destroyed our old copper pipes in the process resulting in pinhole leaks.  It drove me to tears on more than one occasion.  All this before we actually even started the remodel.

So after 17 years of being on one well or another, I'm reasonably confident that we have decent water, and I'm not as afraid of the concept anymore, archaic as it is.  Still, I dream of the day when the public water lines will come flowing down the road into my house washing away my well water worries, and the basement water treatment plant can be disassembled.  I think it is probably a pipe dream (get it - a PIPE dream) because there's no way the requisite percentage of Cape residents is going to agree to the outlay of funds to bring it in, and the county doesn't seem to be in too big a hurry to force the issue, but a girl can dream.

Basement Water Treatment Plant
Picture on Right - My Hand This AM

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