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Well on the way

A new pump raises an instant thrill with a stream of cold, clear water from 80 feet down.

August 24, 2003|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

For nearly a year my wife and I have been visiting and working on a mountain property with no water or power. Our canyon is miles from the nearest utility pole, and while we had water at the bottom of a well, there was no way to get it out. That changed on a recent weekend when we hooked up a new pump and brought in a gusher.

Water, cold and clear, shot out from a pipe after we started the generator and powered up the new pump located deep inside a well that had sat idle for who knows how many years.

We were completely caught off guard by the thrill of seeing water gushing from the ground, making an instant stream that rushed for several yards down the canyon bottom before quickly soaking into the sandy soil.

Our experience up to then on our 40 acres of oak and pine had been a dusty one, even though our weekend place is in the mountains. For much of the year, the soil is powder dry and quite desert-like. Golden granitic dust coats shoes and pant legs when walking about.

Watching water pour from this parched earth was almost biblical -- the proverbial spring in the desert, a miracle on our mountain.

It slowly dawned on us that we could now really clean the old railroad car that came with the property, take showers or even soak in a hot tub if we decide to build a cabin for overnight stays. We had water and lots of it. We could even sell water to the city of L.A. We were water barons.

But the first thing we did with our new resource was to irrigate the five quaking aspens that we planted last winter and have been watering ever since with big bottles we bring from home. After attaching a hose to the spigot on the new wellhead, I had to hold my hand over the end to keep the surprising force of the water from eroding the soil around the trees. The water was so cold I could do this for only a few seconds before I had to blunt the force with an old board instead.

I didn't expect the well water to be as clear and cold as snowmelt. But then that's how the water got there -- snow slowly melts higher up the mountain and works its way underground.

After soaking the trees we stood there like 6-year-olds squirting water at each other on the 100-degree day. We squirted it up into the air and then at the ground, to settle the dust of summer. Water really is an amazing gift.

Lest you get the wrong idea, I did not install the new pump, I simply plugged it in the first time. A husband-and-wife team did all the work. He's actually a fireman who installs and services well pumps on weekends, with lots of help from his wife. They have a special rig with a tall boom that can lift the piping in or take it out of a well.

The well was already dug on our property, which was a real selling point. Drilling can cost $10,000 if you have to go down 300 to 400 feet, a fairly typical depth in our area. We were told that this well was only about 80 feet deep and that there was water at 50.

We had this verified during escrow, though we could not check the water quality because, while one could hear the old pump running down inside the well, nothing came out. We still haven't checked the water quality, but we will before we start drinking it.

Before buying this property I had only a vague idea how wells worked, so I did some homework on the Web. I learned that most pumps are submersible and are placed near the bottom of the well inside a casing.

Because our well was drilled a long time ago and is shallow, the casing is unusually wide, 10 inches across, wide enough to look down. When we took off the well cap and pulled the old pump and pipes out, I could actually see the glimmer of water at the very bottom, a tiny reflective circle.

I was so intrigued, I stuck my camera down the well and took a picture. When I said to my wife, still peering into the hole, "Honey, you've got to see this," an oddly compressed echo came bouncing back.

To remove the old pump, the boom was raised on the truck, then extended even farther so the pieces could be lifted clear. The galvanized pipe was in good shape near the top, but farther down it was actually rusted though in spots. When we finally got it out, we found the pump did work but barely, since it too was quite encrusted.

So we ordered a new stainless steel pump and a few weeks later had it installed. The well was tightly capped, and when we fired up the generator we found that the pump was pushing out a mighty 7 1/2 gallons a minute. "Staying pretty steady," I heard above the mild roar of the generator, as our installers watched a device that monitored the water level. They wanted to see how fast the pump would empty out the well, but it barely made a dent in the water level. We seem to have plenty of water, though we have no place yet to put it.

The next step will be to figure out where to put a water storage tank or a pressure tank. So far, work on the well has cost $1,200 and the generator cost $1,000, money well spent on our property, if you'll pardon the pun. A storage tank on the hillside will cost at least $3,000, and even a little bare-bones pressure tank might cost a grand.

After all of this, I suspect that when the next water bill arrives at home, I won't complain quite so loudly.

Next: Thinking about a cabin.

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