Did you know that there is water under the ground you walk on?

Of course, that’s a ridiculous question.  We all know there’s water underground.  That’s why people have wells.  And in this time of drought, when little is coming from above, this underground water is what may keep us going and keep us alive.

We have lived with rain catchment as our only water source since 1995, when we finished building our house on Terlingua Ranch.  Eleanor Foster, who is now 90 and at that time had already lived here for many years, was the only one we knew with a rain catchment system and she generously taught us the basics.  We started with lots of metal roof (house, patio, shed), oversized gutters, and three 3,000-gallon tanks.  (The equation is one inch of rain on 1,000 square feet of roof provides 600 gallons.) We now have 16,000 gallons of capacity of catchment and storage.  Water has never been a problem for us.  

Admittedly, this is partly because we spend six months of the year in Washington state and only rely on our Texas water supply half the year.  But we are also conservative in our water use and have always had sufficient rain, particularly in the summer months, to replenish what we have used, keeping our tanks full.

Enter this drought.

We returned from Washington state this past November, ready for our six months at our home on the desert, expecting our water tanks to be full from the summer rains as they always had been. 

Uh oh.

There had been only one good rain while we were gone.  Our tanks were definitely not full.

So we conserved more, flushed less, purchased drinking water.  And we watched as the prickly pears shriveled and the water levels in our tanks went down, down.  We started to worry, and this started us wondering about a Plan B.

A little history first.

Three years ago we bought 40 acres that adjoins our property, 40 acres that came complete with a decrepit mobile home, a windmill, and a dry well.  Our neighbor had left and abandoned everything there about five years before that, and it all became an eyesore he had finally sold to us.  

The well was thought to be 100 years old, and had produced good water for many years, until it was abandoned by our neighbor. Perhaps it was its disuse after being abandoned that made it dry up.  Perhaps it was that several other wells had been drilled nearby in recent years.  We didn’t give it much concern or try to figure it out when we bought the place.  We were used to rain catchment at our house, and since the mobile home sat under 2,300 square feet of roof, we immediately purchased a 3,000-gallon tank and began catching rain.   

Charlie spent those first three years resurrecting the mobile home, renovating it into quite a nice guesthouse.  We imagined friends and family coming to visit, and we thought we might perhaps even rent it out at times, once the danger of Covid passed.

But if we really did have a string of guests, 3,000 gallons might not be enough of a supply.  We were thinking this as we were leaving for Washington state this past July.  So, anticipating the usual summer rains, we purchased a second 3,000-gallon tank.

But as mentioned, we returned at the end of November to find the tanks at our house not replenished and both tanks at the mobile home less than half full.  “Drought” was now part of everyone’s conversations. For the first time in our 25 years here, we were worried about water.  

So, what would be our Plan B?   Sitting right there were the windmill and the dry well.  Could it possibly be resurrected?  Charlie was motivated to find out if we could make the well functional again.  To begin, he dropped a string with a small weight attached down the hole, and when he pulled it up, he learned that there was wetness at the bottom.  Perhaps the well was not totally dry after all? 

All it took was a phone call to Skinner’s Well in Alpine and out came Saul, an experienced well man, with one of his sons.  They pulled all 150 feet of pipe out of the ground which revealed that the bottom four-foot length of pipe which held the various parts of the windmill’s pumping mechanism, including what is called the “leathers,” had become disconnected.  This was good news, an actual tangible problem.  Saul then dropped a special camera down, which confirmed Charlie’s finding that there was water at the bottom of the well.  

Saul posed a choice for us.  Should they return to do what they refer to as “blowing out the well to clear out whatever had caused the disconnection?  Oh yes!

Two weeks later, Saul and another of his sons returned with an enormous compressor to blow out the well.  With a hoist, they lowered 150 feet of a different type of pipe down the well and then started this powerful and thunderous compressor, forcing air to the bottom of the well.  We were so excited, expecting a geyser would shoot up.  To our surprise, they covered the hole with an upside-down metal tub so that the geyser was contained and no one needed raincoats.  Indeed water was forced up, but was trapped by the tub, creating lots of noise because the water was full of sand and gravel and rust that had been at the bottom clogging the works.  They did this a couple more times, and Saul decided to attach another 20 feet of pipe to send farther down, past the original 150 feet the well had measured.  Indeed he was able to send pipe down a total of 173 feet until he hit “rock bottom.”  He found that there was water from 120 feet down to 173 feet, a veritable lake!  

Although all the wells of our neighbors rely on solar pumps, Charlie had decided to preserve the windmill.  I love the sound of the blades, called ”sails,” spinning in the wind and our friend Brad, a windmill expert, assured Charlie that all the parts were still there and just needed a little repair. Before lowering the windmill pipe back down into the well, Saul replaced the “leathers” which need to be tight enough to cause the suction that brings the water up.  He also climbed the windmill, hanging from the frame to replace the brake (you have to be able to stop the “sails” from turning so you can control how much water is pumped out).  

Saul is not a young man and yet there he was, suspended and remarkable.

Saul and his son drove away that day leaving us dazzled.   We were mesmerized by the sails going around, the suction pipe going up and down, the water coming out of a hose Charlie attached in order to direct the one-gallon-per-minute flow into a 500-gallon portable tank we had on our utility trailer.  With a small transfer pump and a generator, Charlie was able to fill our tanks and ease our worry.

And then it snowed.  And then it rained.  

And did you know that there is water under the ground you walk on?

By Judy Eron