Some Eastern Iowa wells are comin' up dry

Drought is pushing water levels down, sometimes below private wells

Butch Kasparek (right) of Swisher, Iowa, and Tim Beranek of West Branch, Iowa, co-owners of Novotny and Son Well Service
Butch Kasparek (right) of Swisher, Iowa, and Tim Beranek of West Branch, Iowa, co-owners of Novotny and Son Well Services, place a new well pump and pipe down a well Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, at a home in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Gary Weinman had no warning when one of his wells ran dry last month.

It was a well that serves a guesthouse and his two horses and one donkey on his property off 12th Avenue in a rural area near the Coralville-North Liberty boundary. He paid to have it deepened another 20 feet and it’s now working fine, as is the one serving the main house.

“We’re in a horrible situation in Iowa,” Weinman said.

He was speaking of the drought that has caused crops to wither, much of the eastern half of Iowa to be declared a disaster area and some municipal water systems to ask customers to cut back on water usage. Some private water wells also have been affected.

A little more than 200,000 Iowans draw their water from private wells, State Geologist Bob Libra said. The state does not track water levels in those wells, but some well-service companies have reported being busy, he said.

That includes Rick Freese Well Drilling in Cedar Rapids, which has responded to 15 dry wells — an unusually high number, owner Rick Freese said. He’s been in the business 44 years and compared the current situation with droughts in the mid-1970s and late-1980s.

“I would put this at the top,” he said.

There is no national reporting system for private wells, either, but there is a lot of anecdotal information that some areas are seeing them run low or dry, said Cliff Treyens, director of public awareness for the National Ground Water Association.

“I would say that there is no question that the drought is contributing to it,” he said.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is getting reports of dry private wells in the central and southern portions of that state. Steve Ales, who leads the private water section for the Wisconsin DNR, attributed it to the severe drought in a mid-July news release.

Dry conditions are affecting much of the United States, and U.S. Drought Monitor shows the hardest-hit parts of Iowa are in the east-central, extreme southeast and northwest corner of the state.

That’s taking a toll on some water supplies.

“I haven’t been this swamped for a long time,” said Butch Kasparek, co-owner of Novotny and Son Well Service in Swisher.

They started getting more calls for low water in wells in early July and now take a couple a day. During a summer with normal rainfall, they can go a full week without a call like that, he said.

Some people are worried that they’re going to have difficulties but are not experiencing any yet, Kasparek said. For those who are in trouble, the most common fix is lowering the pump, he said, which can cost a few hundred dollars.

Companies said replacing a pump can run $1,500 or more, drilling deeper a few thousand dollars and drilling a new well at least several thousand dollars.

Private wells in Eastern Iowa tend to be between 100 and 300 feet deep, said Libra, the state geologist.

Novotny and Son have recently seen five wells that were dry and needed to be replaced. These are typically older wells, Kasparek said.

The company they hire to do their drilling was backlogged seven to 10 days, as of two weeks ago, Kasparek said. Now it’s four weeks.

Some well drillers report that business is normal.

Jeremy Walker of Schumacher Well Drilling in Algona, in north-central Iowa, said while he’s getting a lot of phone calls from worried well owners, actual problems are rare. A few shallow wells that were bored instead of drilled near Fort Dodge are acting up, but that’s about it, he said.

Steve Speidel, owner of Speidel Well and Pump Co. in Vinton, has seen no issues with wells running dry and believes there is more than enough groundwater in Iowa. The hot, dry summer has water usage for livestock increasing, however, and he’s been replacing more well pumps for larger ones on farms, he said.

The National Ground Water Association’s Treyens said there are a number of reasons some areas can be OK and others affected, including what aquifer a well is in and snow melt.

Libra said Eastern Iowa is hillier than much of the rest of the state and its aquifers drain really well, so people’s water levels go up and down. Right now, the supply in some areas is below well pumps.

After the last major drought in Iowa, from 1988-89, many people who relied on shallow private wells switched to rural water systems, Libra said. Also, some people used federal money available for livestock producers to deepen wells, he said.

“That’s helping alleviate some of those problems,” he said.

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