Drought Disrupts Everyday Tasks In Rural Midwest
Dilip Vishwanat for The New York Times
By JOHN ELIGON
Published: August 23, 2012
WILDWOOD, Mo. — The wells supplying people’s homes are running dry here at the heart of the nation’s drought, which the government announced on Thursday has spread to 63.2 percent of the country, centered in the parched earth of the southern Midwest.
Cattle at Frost Farms in Tallula, Ill., drank from a stock tank. After months of drought, Tony Frost has had to buy and haul water to different pastures.
For some residents outside municipal water districts, it has become a struggle to wash dishes, or fill a coffee urn, even to flush the toilet. Mike Kraus, a cattle farmer in Garden City, Kan., twisted the tap on the shower the other day after work and heard nothing but hissing.
“And that was it,” he said.
While there are no national statistics on the rate at which residential wells are drying, drilling companies and officials in states across the Midwest have said that hundreds of people who rely on wells have complained of their pipes emitting water that goes from milky to spotty to nothing. An estimated 13.2 million households nationwide use private wells.
From the middle of June through the end of July, 100 to 150 people have contacted Indiana state officials complaining that their wells had either failed or were running dangerously low, said Mark Basch, head of water rights and use section of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Danny Flynn, the owner of the Flynn Drilling Company in Troy, Mo., said he had received hundreds of calls from people with well problems. Bruce Moss, a co-owner of Moss Well Drilling in central Indiana, said business has spiked 25 percent this summer. In the past two weeks, CLT Well Service in southwest Kansas has gotten four calls for residential wells that had gone completely dry, said Clint Tyler, the owner. Usually, they get about one such call a year, he said.
“It’s just crazy right now,” Mr. Tyler said. “We’ve never been this far behind.”
Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri has moved aggressively to provide relief to farmers whose wells have run dry, allocating more than $25 million in state aid to either improve the wells or help farmers get water by other means. Mr. Nixon said the state was considering ways it could help homeowners who have lost water, too.
“We are aware of that challenge,” he said in an interview. “It’s part of the portfolio of issues.”
Until then, homeowners are faced with an unhappy choice: spend thousands of dollars to either dig a new well or make the existing one deeper — or wait it out till the rains return.
Charles Bishop of High Hill, Mo., tried to muddle through. He and his wife drove five miles into town multiple times a day for about four days to fill a water tank on the back of their pickup truck after their well ran dry. They bathed out of sinks and used buckets to flush their toilets.
Eventually, they got their well drilled 100 feet deeper, Mr. Bishop said, a project that cost about $10,000.
In the week or so that Mr. Kraus, his wife and two children went without running water, they bathed, drank and brushed their teeth with water from one- and two-gallon glass jars that they filled up at neighbors’ homes. Mr. Kraus, 35, said he also sometimes filled up a tank on his truck at an irrigation well at a farm about 24 miles from his home, where he raises cattle and grows some crops. He seemed able to turn the hardship into a lesson.
“It’s amazing how far you can stretch a gallon of water,” he said, noting that he could shower, brush his teeth and still have some left over.
The plunge in the water supply is mostly the result of a simple geological process. Without rain, aquifers deep beneath the ground have not been getting the water that seeps into the earth to replenish their supplies. In one part of northwest Indiana, Mr. Basch said, the groundwater level had dropped as much as 40 feet since late spring, or about eight times more than it normally does.
Compounding the problem for homeowners relying on diminished aquifers is the fact that municipalities and farmers who consume water on a much larger scale have been draining the groundwater supply at a faster rate this summer because of the drought.