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Drinking Well
As rural communities abandon wells in favor of municipal water, the debate becomes muddy.

Mel Simmons stands in the sprawling grass field in the part of town where folks measure their property in acres. The stink of manure drifts from a neighbor's plot across the dirt road in Marcellus and hangs in the humid afternoon air. Before he sets up his 42-foot hydraulic rotary drill, he selects the best spot for a new well. Veins of water run deep below ground. He knows that below him rest a series of layers: clay, gravel, dirt, a bedrock of shale, and then the water followed by mixtures of sulfur, sand, and salt. If he drills in the wrong place or at the wrong depth, the well will run dry or produce foul water.

Simmons' knowledge comes from decades of working in the region. Hydrogeologists have mapped the aquifer system in central New York in great detail, but to find the spot that offers the best chance of tapping into running water, Simmons follows family tradition. He walks to his van and pulls out his divining rod, a folk instrument that consists of two "L"-shaped, brass-wire wands. Holding them in front of his chest, he steps slowly across the land with his face fixed in wrinkles of deep concentration. Gradually, the rods drift apart as if pushed by an invisible hand.

Simmons stops. He's found his spot.

Thirty minutes later, the tip of the drill shoe thunders 36 feet into the earth. Red dirt coats Simmons' glasses, jeans, T-shirt, and skin. Without his yellow ear plugs, 35 years of the churning noise of the machine would have robbed him of his hearing by now. Occasionally, he clears his throat of the grit thrown into the air by the huge machine. The dust makes his lungs wheeze like those of a coal miner. He figures he needs to drill 114 more feet before dirt becomes mud. Twenty years ago, when the log house stood alone on the road, Simmons dug 55 feet for the property's first well. As the neighbors moved in and built their own wells, the water supply dropped. Without the clean flush of deep, flowing water, wells run dry or fill with sediments. These days, drillers must reach deeper and deeper into the ground to accommodate the growing population of thirsty mouths that drink more and more from the same underground source.

Similar scenes play out all across rural areas in New York. Anywhere from 20 percent to almost 60 percent of households in central New York counties drink from wells (compared to the amount of people in New York who rely on wells, which is roughly the same as the national average and the same for Onondaga County, one of the most urbanized counties in the region — 10 percent). But in the string of smaller towns that dot the region, fewer and fewer people demand Simmons' services, a fact that marks a change in the water culture of this area. The U.S. Geological Survey of water use estimates that, between 1950 and 2000, the number of people who used wells decreased from 38 percent to 15 percent of the total population. Over the same period of time, the amount of water drawn from wells increased by 71 percent, reflecting the increase in demand by those with wells.

As population and water usage increase and prompt shared groundwater to run low, municipal water — a steady stream of treated water piped in from the nearest city — becomes a tempting alternative with cultural ramifications. Townspeople view wells as nuisances to tolerate until the city rescues the population by installing water meters that offer a common and trustworthy water supply. More rural folk see wells as a statement of independence and a source of more "natural" water, but the recent need to drill deeper to find potable water creates concern and a decided uneasiness. As municipal pipes snake farther out into the rural communities, some welcome them, others resist. Regardless of which side of the well issue residents reside, new water infrastructures upend a community, creating economic opportunities, eliminating others, and prompting political and health debates that foreshadow what scientists and researchers refer to as the coming global water crisis. But for now, the state of wells in the rural parts of central New York serves as our region's canary in the coal mine and offers a telling look at this area's water culture.

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Copyright 2007 S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications