Deep water thoughts when the well stops working

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    Well innards – pipe and wire.
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Just as I started writing “On Water” for this blog, my well pump produced a terrible clanking and cranking and shut itself off after running for 30 seconds at a time.  Death throes — that’s what Roger, the well man, declares.

Gap-toothed and a little grim, Roger’s standing next to the open door of our pump house. He outlines further possible disasters. We could be facing pitted pipes that will need to be replaced, or not-up-to-standard wiring — or, worst of all, a failed well. We won’t know until the pump is pulled.

The roof of the pump house — originally designed to be removable for this contingency — has been pushed aside so the crane that Roger operates from the back of his truck can hoist up the long sections of pipe, one by one, from the 500-foot shaft that is our well.

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Young Dustin does most of the physical labor, unscrewing and laying each pipe section carefully on the gravel driveway so it can be returned in the exact order it came out.

I can feel the pipe extraction as if it were my own body. I had no idea I identified so closely with this source I’ve been watching over for the 17 years we’ve lived on our country acres outside of Eugene, Ore.

Strategies for using less
We’ve always lived with low-flow everything. Restrictors on showers and faucets, the newest low-water washer — there’s only one hose bib on the whole house that delivers at the maximum, and that’s for fire protection.

However, I was surprised to discover that our toilets are not as water-saving as they could be. When we had to refill using a five-gallon bucket with water scooped out of the hot tub — our Northwestern winter pleasure — it turns out it’s two gallons per flush. That was low-flow 17 years ago, but not now.

When we bought the house, we downsized from the average toilet flush of 7 gallons. Whew. However, now technology has improved. Some dual-flushes use less than a gallon. Save water in the bathroom — more for the garden, where it can at least percolate down and return to the groundwater.

Our gardening water comes from our holding tank, a 12,000 gallon above-ground swimming pool at the top of our property. It was here when we moved in. We don’t swim in it. We collect rainwater in winter. Frogs and small fish have made it their home.

We augment in summer  pouring judicious supplements from the well, turned on at night when the system has no other demands. A hefty farm pump next to the swimming pool delivers the water downhill in the daytime to drip hoses and low-volume sprinklers.

Water is wealth
Finally, our well pump is pulled into view, slim and shining, still looking new after all those years. I’m adding up replacement costs in my head — ca-ching, ca-ching — when I realize all water is free — every bit of it, an incredibly generous gift from our blue planet. It’s getting it from place to place that costs.

The conservation connection has never been clearer to me than it has in the last three days without water — it took Roger that long to get here. All value of real estate, either in town or country, depends on water. You can have the fanciest Mc-house around with a big spread of barns and animals — we don’t, but you could — and it’s worth zero without a good source of water.

You think home prices have dropped in the last year? Your value plummets to nothing, the day your tap runs dry. Conservation gets personal. No matter how much it costs you in a monthly bill, water’s true worth is beyond rubies and pearls.

Now Roger is grinning. All is well with the well. Our pipes are fine, our electrical wiring is up to code. we still have water in the ground. With each pronouncement, I take a personal pride, as if someone had told me, you have great teeth.

Dustin wires up a new pump and it slowly makes its way back down the shaft, to hang above the actual well bottom at 456 feet, so it doesn’t suck up grit, connecting us once more with the source of all we need — and that’s priceless.

Mary-Kate Mackey, co-author of Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros and contributor to the Sunset Western Garden Book, writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She will be writing about water in the garden for Diggin’ It.

Editor’s note: To read more by Mary-Kate, check our blog archive. Gardening articles on a variety of topics can be found at the Monitor’s main gardening page. Also see our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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