Increased drilling for water wells may be damaging soil

09/02/2012 5:00 AM

09/03/2012 2:43 PM

With the drought and higher water prices, more people are drilling water wells to save money on keeping their lawns and gardens alive. But in some cases, they may be damaging the soil, a problem that is expensive and time-consuming to repair.

The problem is high salt content in the water.

“I have seen several water samples come back with astronomical levels of sodium that will be extremely damaging to the soil,” Sedgwick County extension agent Rebecca McMahon said. Fixing the damaged soil, she said, “will be an expense far greater than whatever their water bill would have been originally.”

McMahon recommends that people who have wells drilled test the water quality before using the water. Unfortunately, the water can’t be tested before a well is drilled — and the cost for drilling is $2,000 to $3,000.

But before drilling, a person can find out if there is a history of problems with groundwater in a particular area, McMahon said. People can also check with a neighbor who has a well and have that water tested, said Doris Leslie, environmental specialist for the city of Wichita.

The Extension Service offers tests for water quality for irrigation for less than $15. Private labs also do testing.

Usually when people have their water tested it’s after they’ve been using well water and then see problems in their yard, McMahon said. Otherwise “most people just skip it,” she said of the tests. “We’ve probably done a couple dozen tests this year.” The number of permits for water wells was more than 1,000 last year, and drillers have seen at least a 25 percent increase this year.

It’s common that half of the test results show water of a marginal or unacceptable quality, McMahon said. “But this year I’d say there’s been more that don’t meet the standards, and they’re far, far worse” in their salt levels.

Once a test reveals unacceptable levels of salt, the well owner must not use the water, she said. If the water has already damaged a landscape, the process for reclaiming the soil is arduous and expensive: Gypsum must be incorporated into the soil at an extremely high rate – not just sprinkled on top – and then leached through the soil with good-quality water in high amounts weekly for almost a year, McMahon said. Sometimes the process takes longer. Clay soil holds salt and will take longer to repair than sandy soil that lets things percolate through.

McMahon doesn’t know of anyone who has gone through the process. Other options for gardening in damaged soil include building raised beds or berms 12 inches deep with good soil, she said.

“At that point the city water is looking better,” McMahon said.

People who have been using well water without any problem probably don’t need to worry, another extension agent, Bob Neier, said. But if the lower leaves of their plants start getting crusty and white, that’s evidence of a salt problem, he said.

Increased demand for water and less of it because of the drought have caused water tables to diminish, environmental specialist Leslie said. “Eventually the water becomes very poor because minerals become very concentrated. ... People need to conserve, whether they’re on city water or ground water, because we’re sort of in the same boat.”

Jon Weninger, owner of Weninger Water Well Drilling, said there are areas that have traditionally had salty water — north of Wichita coming in from Hutchinson, and North Ridge Road around 37th Street — recently discovered ones, such as an area south of Kellogg on Maize Road before you hit Schulte at K-42. “We’re finding little pockets around town,” he said.

The demand for wells is starting to diminish with summer winding down, Weninger said.

“I think with the (water) rates going up you’ll probably see quite a few wells going in the next year or two, then the demand starting to drop off.”

He said that 90 percent of new wells are being drilled at existing homes, while there’s not as much new construction going on. And in areas where new housing is going in, there often isn’t enough water to make wells worthwhile, he said.

Leslie said it would take a while for the water situation to recover — and all water users should conserve.

“It’s tough when we get into these drought situations and people don’t change their water consumption habits,” she said. “Everybody is depending on the same resource, and all of a sudden we’ve created a bigger problem. ... If you’re all pulling from the same resource, you’re going to continue to degrade” the water supply.

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