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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Higher rates, drought lead to more drilling of water wells

Permits rise in Wichita along with utility rates

By Dan Voorhis
The Wichita Eagle

For those who want cheap, plentiful water this summer: Get in line.

The number of water wells is going up in Wichita and elsewhere in the region as people seek lower-cost options for filling pools or watering lawns.

That means big business for companies that drill wells.

Curtis Weninger, owner of Premier Pump & Well Service, estimated his business is up 30 percent this year, with a similar increase last year. The wait time to have him drill is six weeks, he said.

The number of water well permits in the city of Wichita shot up 33 percent in 2011 to a record 1,045 permits, according to the city.

The reason, said Weninger, was the combination of a punishing drought, increasing demand for water and higher water rates in Wichita.

Last summer was one of the hottest in Wichita history, with temperatures 100 degrees or higher for a record 53 days. That takes a toll on landscaping and lawns, especially on the fescue grass so common in Wichita.

At the same time, the city of Wichita has raised water rates to pay for expensive water projects. The price for city water has risen 21 percent since July 2010.

“After they get a $700 water bill, they call me,” Weninger said.

Well driller Jerry Reiserer, who has drilled for decades in the area, said he has 40 to 50 jobs on the books.

The cost of drilling a well is $2,000 to $3,000, which doesn’t include the cost of the sprinkler, the pump and electricity to run the pump.

Well drilling has traditionally been partly tied to new home construction, which is a big reason why the number was so high in 2007 and dipped so deeply starting in 2008. But 2011 was a turning point, according to well drillers, because much of the new well business came from owners of existing homes searching for lower-cost water.

Drilling

Drilling a well is both pretty involved and fairly quick.

This week, Weninger was drilling a 100-foot-deep well at duplexes under construction near 127th Street East and Pawnee, using his well-worn rotary drill rig, which looks like a miniature oil derrick. He and his helper, Allen Stroot, worked efficiently, but without rushing, as the drill bore down 20 feet. Then they screwed on a 20-foot addition to the drill shaft. Drill and repeat.

The potential for getting a finger smashed is pretty high if you don’t pay attention and take your time, he said.

Water was pumped into the hole to flush out the dirt and rock, as well as supplying pressure to maintain the wall of the borehole. When the hole is done, they repeat the process, installing 20-foot sections of 5-inch PVC pipe, some of it perforated to allow water to flow into the bore. Installing the water lines and pumps is up to somebody else. They pack sand around the PVC to allow water to flow freely into the pipe.

He can do three wells a day on the east side and four a day on the west side. That’s partly because east-side soil has more clay and rock, and partly because it takes him a while to commute from home on the west side.

Or, it could take more time if the crew runs into trouble, which it did on a job earlier this week. The crew had drilled about 50 feet when it hit what Weninger called a void in the rock, and the circulating water just disappeared down the hole. Their water truck holds 6,000 gallons, and it kept pumping water into the hole so they could keep drilling. When that didn’t prove enough to fill the void, they had to stop and fill the truck up again.

“There’s quick turnaround, when things go right,” he said.

The cost of drilling

Pumping groundwater for home use is basically unregulated once a well permit is obtained and inspection is passed, said Tim Boese, manager of Equus Beds Groundwater Management District No. 2, which is based in Halstead.

What that means in a drought is that the water table falls at the same time pumping demand from homes and farms rises.

The Equus Beds are 200 feet deep and spread over four counties. They help supply the city of Wichita. Last year, the water table fell 3.2 feet, Boese said.

But in some places the water table is thin, perhaps 60 or 80 feet of fresh water in rock that sits on top of layers of geologic formations saturated with salt water. The danger is that all of that pumping during a drought could actually empty out the groundwater – something that happened last summer in some densely developed areas in Andover and far eastern Sedgwick County, Reiserer said.

“That’s what happens when you have thousand and thousands of wells drilled,” said Reiserer, who has been drilling wells in the area for decades.

Boese said that the rains so far this year have replenished about a third of the depleted water table in his district.

But if the rain doesn’t keep coming and the area has a longer period of below-average rain, those kinds of depletion events could become more common in some areas.

“Quite frankly, people use sprinklers too much, sometimes,” he said. “They have a mentality that it’s free water.”

Or, as Reiserer said: “They better wise up.”

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