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Tuesday, July 11, 2000

‘Well water’ signs dot city after restrictions
By Jason Gibbs
Reporter-News Staff Writer

Abilene homeowners are looking beneath their browning lawns in an effort to keep their vegetation green.

City officials estimate there are between 300 and 350 private residential wells in the Abilene area. And more are being drilled every day.

Russell Southerland, owner of Southerland Water Wells, is hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for new drilling.

Since City Hall enacted restrictions last August on the use of city water for lawn sprinkling to conserve Abilene’s dwindling surface-water supply, the demand for privately owned wells has risen.

“We’re busy, busy, busy,” Southerland said.

He has three drilling rigs, two of which operate full-time. All three would be running eight hours a day, five days a week if he had enough employees to run them, he said. Customers face a wait of two to three weeks because of a backlog of orders.

Southerland estimates nearly 200 wells have been sunk in the Abilene area in the last year.

The water in these wells is sought mainly for irrigation. High levels of calcium and other minerals make it unfit for drinking and washing. And treating the water for use inside the home is a costly proposition.

A whole-house system with a softener, sediment filter and chlorine unit costs between $2,500 and $3,000.

Not everyone in the Key City has access to underground water. Drillers are most successful in the city’s northwest quadrant, which is fed by an underground river that flows through downtown. The city’s southwest, particularly near the creeks, also yields plentiful water, but primarily inside the loop, northeast of Highway 83/84.

The earth around the Mall of Abilene and southward — the city’s fastest-growing sector — is practically bone-dry, drillers said.

The process of sinking a well usually begins by drilling a test hole to determine if water is beneath a particular location. But drilling a test hole may not be necessary.

“We know the areas around town where there’s water,” Southerland said. “If we’re on a marginal edge or a new area, we’ll drill a test hole.”

Test holes cost about $4 a foot to drill down to the water level, anywhere from 40 to 60 feet. If water is found, a bigger hole — usually 9 inches in diameter — is drilled into the water table. The drilling takes about four hours.

Once the hole is cased with a 5-inch pipe, gravel is used to refill the hole and secure the pipe. A cement slab is then poured to support a pump. The cost starts at $1,500.

The entire process takes about a week from the time prospecting begins until the water starts to flow from the pump. Most residential wells produce 10 to 50 gallons of water per minute.

The expense does not seem to dissuade many Abilenians from tapping into the underground water source. Southerland said his company is drilling eight to 10 wells every week.

For many homeowners, savings on their water bill offset the cost.

Dean and Ella Ferrell live in the 4100 block of Hartford Street. They sank a well last summer and have realized a savings of more than 50 percent on their water bills since they began irrigating with well water.

“Our water bill was so high,” Mrs. Ferrell said. “We’ve got a huge yard. We call it ‘The Acre.’”

Like most well owners, they use city water for household purposes and well water strictly for irrigation. In the middle of the Ferrells’ well-manicured expanse of green grass sits their well. A neatly printed sign on the pump alerts passers-by that — while lush — their yard is not kept verdant at the expense of the municipal water supply.

A similar sign is tacked to a fence nearby, shaded by a mimosa tree heavy with pink blooms.

“It’s doing great,” Ferrell said. “We’ve put lots of bushes and plants out there.”

The use of well water for irrigation is a boon to the city because it reduces the demand for municipal drinking water, said Dwayne Hargesheimer, the city’s director of water utilities.

But the growing number of people tapping into the underground water supply has led to a rising concern over falling water tables.

The underground water being tapped is slow to replenish, Hargesheimer said. It relies on rainfall seeping through a geologic formation southwest of Abilene. Less rain and more people drawing on the ground water have dried out the patches of underground gravel where the water accumulates.

In recent weeks, several wells on the fringes of the water-bearing formation have begun to go dry, Hargesheimer said.

Southerland said he, too, has noticed a slight drop in the water table. He emphasized the decrease is only slight, however.

“Most of the water we’re finding is thick water — there’s plenty of it,” the driller said. “We’re sinking wells that are producing what the people need and there’s still plenty of water down there.”

Contact staff writer Jason Gibbs at 676-6734 or gibbsj@abinews.com.

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