What do you do when your well runs dry? This proverbial question had real consequences for Nancy Poage-Nixon in Oak Hill, Texas, in the Hill Country outside of Austin. Development was encroaching from the east, and new subdivisions were drilling wells, tapping the already-stressed Edwards Aquifer. Although in its 28 years Nancy’s 438-foot-deep well hadn’t had any problems, in the summer of 2006, not a particularly dry year, its flow stopped.
Until then, Nancy had survived just fine with her well, although she’d never been particularly fond of the water that came out of it. The presence of sulfur meant that the tap water would often smell like rotten eggs. The water coming out of the karst limestone aquifer is also very hard, with a large amount of calcium and magnesium carbonates dissolved in it. This can have deleterious effects on household plumbing by building up in pipes and appliances, from hot water heaters to coffee pots, often shortening their lifespan. Hard water also doesn’t take soap well (it is “hard” to lather), making cleaning more difficult.
Previous to the drought, Nancy had installed a 1,200-gallon above-ground storage tank with an aerator to help pull the sulfur out of the well water and make it more palatable. Also before the drought, she had replaced her asphalt roofing with a new metal roof to help reflect sunlight and reduce home cooling costs. These two installations were going to be propitious when it came time to decide how to get water into her home after her well ran dry.
One local well-drilling company quoted $12,000 to drill through the limestone to the next layer of water in the aquifer. Of course, with new housing still going up and old wells going dry as the water table continues to fall, there was no guarantee that this deeper well would not dry up in the future.
Fortunately, drilling deeper was not the only solution. In the last decade, a few Austinites had set up whole-house rainwater catchment systems to provide all of their home’s water needs. Nancy teaches science at the local middle school, and she makes environmental ecology a part of her curriculum. Using rainwater for her home’s water needs would square with what she was teaching in the classroom and make a great example for her students.
After a bit of sleuthing, she found Chris Maxwell-Gaines at Innovative Water Solutions, who was happy to work with her existing well equipment and convert it to a rainwater collection system. Her metal roof was ideal for collecting water, as it leaves no residue in the rainwater it sheds. And the 1,200-gallon tank was a good start for storage. With these components—and if Nancy was willing to maintain her water-thrifty ways—the complete system would cost around $6,000, about half the cost of drilling a deeper well.