New York City interest in water wells bubbles up

New Yorkers in search of water are looking down. Although the prolonged dry period in the area has been broken by recent rains , the threat of a long-term water shortage remains. As a result, interest in drilling wells to tap the aquifer under this city is bubbling up.

Already, some 560 water wells are in active use in the five boroughs, including bedrock-based Manhattan.

Some observers say that the last time interest is drilling reached such a high-water mark here was in the 1964-65 drought. The city recently began studying whether municipal drilling in Brooklyn is a realistic way of offsetting future rainwater shortfalls.

Drilling wells might seem a good way to ease the water shortage, but city officials and water-well experts caution that drilling in New York City is neither simple, inexpensive -- nor even safe in some instances.

Marvin Bogner, a spokesman for the New York City Health Department, which issues the $65 permit necessary to drill a water well, says that "in New York, there's a lot of stuff down there -- like subways, steam tunnels, and sewers -- so that people have to be very careful when they drill water wells. Certain plans have to be filed with the department. Our warning is, 'Don't do it without professional guidance.'"

Often, he adds, costs will be prohibitive --water lies several hundred feet or more under the ground, water experts say.

Nationwide, as in New York, well drilling is up as more and more businesses and homeowners scamper to deal more effectively with drought conditions.

"Well drilling is on the increase throughout the nation," says Jim Poehlman of the National Water Well Association (NWWA) in Columbus, Ohio. "There are about 900,000 wells being drilled a year now, up from about 700,000 about five years ago."

Mr. Poehlman explains that wells cost "around $10 to $12 a foot" when drilling takes place in sand and gravel. The average well, including pump and accesories, costs about $2,200, according to the NWWA. Drilling through solid rock is considerably more expensive. Poehlman adds.

Here in New York, wells serve a variety of purposes, from furnishing commercial car washes with water to industrial cooling to household use.

Just how many New Yorkers may begin to dig their own well depends on how acute the water shortage continues to be, according to city Health Department Commissioner Reinaldo Ferrer.

The purity of the well water is another factor that must be considered before drilling in urban areas, says Marian Mlay, deputy director of the drinking water officer of the US Environmental Protection Agency in Washington. "In a highly urbanized area, you don't know what's happening next door," she contends. "And wells that are drilled have to be done properly or they can pollute the groundwater themselves."

But Jay Lehr, executive director of the NWWA and the first man in this country to receive a PhD in groundwater hydrology, says that although the "well-drilling potential in Manhattan is not particularly good, you can find water in some places . . . in most of Brooklyn, you can't miss.

Dr. Lehr forecasts that water-well drilling will double in this decade, in urban as well as suburban and rural areas. During a recent drought in Oklahoma City, he explained, "many people were out drilling wells because they were not allowed to water their lawns with city water."

In New York City, the health department is being flooded with requests for well-drilling applications, but Mr. Bogner says that to his knowledge no drilling has started.

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