If there’s any resource that binds us together it’s water. No matter where you get your home’s water, it’s all part of a common supply, and sooner or later, how that supply is treated will affect you. Directly or indirectly.

Water has slipped from our attention span at present because many think the drought of the past few years has been replaced by a super abundance. One is more likely to worry about a wet basement this spring than a dry well. But the real drought—plummeting levels of our common aquifers—is still with us.

Water has been an issue in the Chesapeake since the Europeans’ earliest years here. When the Virginia Colony at Jamestown was settled in 1607, its site was chosen for military reasons—a neck of land that could be easily defended against potential Native American attackers. Inadequately thought out was the supply of drinking water. In dry years, the James River can become salty at the latitude of Jamestown.

In the early 17th century, the massive forests throughout the Chesapeake’s 64,000-square-mile drainage basin transpired immense amounts of water—millions of gallons a day— into the atmosphere. But even greater amounts of water percolated into forest soils and were stored. The result was, in wet or dry years, less runoff from the watershed into rivers and Bay.

River salinity in these early times, therefore, is believed to have been higher, especially during the droughts of July and August, exacerbating Jamestown’s drinking water problems.

Master George Percy wrote: “Our drinke cold water taken out of the River, which was at a floud very salt, at low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men.”

Historian Carville Earle postulates that many of the debilitating “fluxes, bloodie flixe, swellings, cruell diseases” and deaths in the colony’s early days (nonexistent personal sanitation aside) were a result of salt intoxication from the water supply.

Half a part per thousand is a modern recommended limit for salt in drinking water although some municipal populations tolerate up to two parts per thousand without complaint. According to Earle, Jamestown may have had a lot more.

Of 104 colonists left at Jamestown in June 1607, 21 died in a month and 46 by late September. When the colony’s first resupply ship arrived in January 1608, only about 40 men were still alive.

Earle notes that typhoid, a bowel infection caused by the ingested Salmonella typhosa bacterium, and dysentery, a disease caused by the amoebic parasite, Endamoeba histolytica, may explain many deaths, but even these are the result of a poor water supply.

As Native American hostilities increased —15 colonists were killed in attacks— an attempt was made to secure safer drinking water by digging a well within the confines of the fort. But this supply, which tapped a shallow water table within the earth, could have been too brackish during droughts.

The well was also subject to contamination from the surface by the colonists’ hygienic practices. A later law prohibited doing “the foul necessities of nature” within a quarter mile of the fort. In 1610, 150 men (43 percent of the population) had died by the end of summer, and by April 1611, another 50. Earle estimates the death rate for 1612-13 at 50 percent or more.

Samuel Argall, who became governor in 1617, found Jamestown much reduced, with its settlement scattered along the river. He recorded: “The Well of fresh water [was] spoiled…and the Colonie dispersed all about, planting Tobacco.”

The native Americans knew the value of good fresh water and the healthful siting of settlements. During the summer, they usually lived on higher ground, near areas where fresh springs came out of the earth, providing a renewable, cool supply for drinking, a lesson only slowly appreciated by colonists with a town-centered mentality.

The water supply in early colonial tidewater Chesapeake was limited to sweetwater springs and streams. Without an abundant supply of brick, lining a hand-dug well in sand and clay soil was difficult. When brick or stone was available, it was expensive in what was largely a barter economy with leaf tobacco, or notes of credit as currency.

As farmers cleared more and more land, the water supply archived in shaded forest soils and wetlands began to dry up. When there was runoff, both water and soil rushed down gullies and into streams.

This was true all over the watershed; some areas in Pennsylvania lost all of their topsoil in 25 years. One colonial writer claimed that “our streams dry up apace” and that those known “to Mr. [William] Penn were no longer sufficient for farmers’ needs.”

Wells offered inland farmers access to the ground water table, which might be anywhere from a few feet to 25 feet deep.

My unused well at Osborn Cove is in its own valley with no other water consumption. It’s 16 feet deep and in wet years has more than 9 feet of water. In the 2002 drought, this dropped to 18 inches—an almost 84 percent decline—without any withdrawals.

In wells deeper than 25 feet, the cast-iron, leather-valved hand pumps of the 19th century couldn’t lift water without the column literally separating from its own weight and failing to deliver water to the surface. That’s a matter of simple physics. These pumps were (and still are) modest in price. Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s 1902 catalog sells the common pitcher spout variety in iron for a dollar; hardware stores today get $35 for these garden objets d’art.

They work well while groundwater tables are intact and being recharged by rainfall and infiltration from neighboring streams. There’s one on a well in Osborn Cove’s Southwest Valley that still functions without maintenance after about 100 years!

The laborious bricking of well interiors was later replaced by concrete well rings about 4 feet in diameter, which nest atop each other with a cast-in collar. A lot of these are still found in shallower Coastal Plain wells. Well rings were also used on beaches to help catch sand and slow erosion, and can be seen on the Bay and along rivers.

Near many of the Chesapeake’s abundant incising creeks and deep gullies, springs often burst out of downward tilting aquifers (layers of water-rich sands confined between strata of water-impermeable clay). Charged at their higher ends by infiltrating rainwater, the head of water put the escaping springs under so much pressure so that these artesian sources were uncannily reliable and burbled up strongly.

They were used by the early Native Americans and were common while the Chesapeake tidewater was heavily forested and infiltrated much of the rainwater.

O.W. Ferguson, a coast survey assistant aboard the U.S. schooner, Matchless, while producing navigational charts of Maryland’s lower Patuxent and mapping nearby terrain in the early 20th century, remarked that “Artesian water is obtained and of good quality and in sufficient quantity.”

Several of these sources of sweet water in Southern Maryland, such as Brewhouse, and Old Spout (formerly Indian Spring) were renowned for their qualities: They made good tea or kept well on long sea voyages. These artesian springs ran in wet or dry weather, sometimes uninterrupted for centuries, until development or land alterations in their recharge areas—where rainfall percolates into the ground to recharge them,—were damaged, filled or paved over.

In 1722, English mill operator John Whitehurst developed a hydraulic ram pump which used energy from piped water flowing downhill, even just a couple of feet. When a valve was tripped by hand, the sudden shock-and-hammer effect pulsed water up a second pipe, where it spurted into a head tank as much as 40–50 feet higher. Frenchman Pierre Montgolfier, co-developer of the first hot air balloons, invented a valve that would trip automatically 40–90 times a minute.

The Montgomery Ward company sold seven sizes of iron and bronze Deming hydraulic rams in its 1895 catalog. The cheapest, delivering 2 gallons per minute, cost $4.50; the $65 version could pump up to 120 gpm.

By the early 20th century, hydraulic rams were in common use around the Chesapeake. The ram, running 24 hours a day with no human effort or electricity required, would supply adequate water from a tank in one’s attic to meet most domestic needs. The ram belonging to my neighbor, J.R. McQueen, worked for decades with only minor plumbing repairs, as did the one for the public school building in Solomons, MD. Modern PVC or metal versions are still sold through garden or farm supply magazines or on the Internet.

Even when rural electrification cooperatives allowed replacing hand pumps with motor-driven versions, inland wells were still subject to contamination from farmyard runoff; animals and vermin falling in and decomposing; or seepage from outhouse or septic systems placed too close.

Until the public clearly understood the germ theory of disease, these were a common source of health problems.

Most homes in the communities around Solomons Island relied on shallow wells in the early 1940s. Then, during World War II, the federal government built a large naval invasion training facility near Olivet.

Large wells were put in to supply the base. The amount of groundwater withdrawn was huge, in local terms, and the area water table—the level underground where the shallowest and most accessible water is found—fell dramatically in a broad inverted cone of depression surrounding the Navy’s withdrawal points. Although many families’ wells went dry, I’m told that they just grumbled and bore it as their part of the war effort.

It was not to be the end of new and bigger wells pirating another person’s supply.

The “jet” pump, developed around 1940, was in widespread use by the 1950s. This device relied on a sealed pipe enclosing and primed with an unbroken column of water that was kept from running out at the bottom by a watertight foot valve. The electric motor drew water up to a home pressure tank for domestic use. This innovation permitted the tapping of still deeper aquifers that had been hitherto unavailable.

These wells were below the range of surface contaminants: The pump was located in one’s basement, and the pipe was inserted down a long, narrow, well casing and capped at the top to prevent contamination. Thousands of these wells still operate, some after more than 50 years.

With still greater size, power and technological improvements, pump and well casing systems, common by the 1960s, were able to tap into very old, in fact prehistoric, water reservoirs more than 200–300 feet deep. Municipal wells could pierce down more than 1,000 feet.

Well drillers, interested in finding water where others might have failed, kept logs of the sediments, clays and sands found at different depths. Geologists used these records to develop comprehensive maps of the water resources beneath us. Names like Nanjemoy, Piney Point and Aquia were assigned to these deep, gently sloping aquifers. Names were based on the areas to the west where they were at ground surface and where rainwater originally entered the earth.

When test pumpings were made as one after another well was brought in, it became clear which were abundant resources and which were less so. With the amounts these wells could produce, people were confident their water problems were over forever.

As the Chesapeake region’s population increased, demands on deeper aquifers increased dramatically. At the same time, unwise land use practices were destroying the quickly renewable water resources near the surface. One man filled in a valley to build a road to the water, causing an artesian spring to go dry. In a developed area near Solomons, homeowners sunk wells into the groundwater aquifer and in dry years, one after another found their wells going dry, and paid to have still deeper wells drilled.

Deep aquifers are not inexhaustible. In the early 1980s, our 310-foot well into the Nanjemoy began to fail as dozens of new homeowners, and former shallow well users, began withdrawing from this source. We had to pay $3,000–$4,000 to have a deeper well drilled.

Modern wells often have relatively light, non-corrosive PVC casings. Flexible plastic pipe with an electric cable attached carries a thin cylindrical submersible pump down about 10 feet above the bottom of the well to avoid sediment. These pumps last for years, and when one fails, the flexible pipe can be hauled up with relative ease and the unit replaced.

In the 2001–02 drought, the artesian spring at Old Spout—which had run in all weather for more than 200 years—failed, and the owners drilled a well into the Aquia.

Nearby, a dug well on Sollers Wharf Road failed repeatedly and the owner, desperate even for regular showers, paid the price of a deep well. The story was repeated thousands of times around the Chesapeake.

At the same time, the Maryland Department of Environment’s frequently issued water withdrawal permit announcements show that millions of gallons per month of new water consumption is permitted from the state’s underground resources. This cannot go on at present rates.

It might look like recent rains have wiped away the specter of drought, but that’s simply not the case. Public records show that deeper aquifers have been falling about 3 feet a year. In recent years, this accelerated to 7 feet a year, and last year in one key aquifer, the drop was an astounding 21 feet!

If your or your community’s well is in one of these, the day will come when it will suck air—or mud—and it might not be as simple as paying for a new well. Someday, the water will just not be there. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts that in future years, el Nino and la Nina events in the Pacific Ocean will create more prolonged drought events.

Water is an incredibly valuable resource. For most of the world, it’s in painfully short supply and the generally clean, tasty water in the Bay watershed is a blessing beyond measure.

We should treat it better and not use so much to flush toilets; do unreasonable amounts of laundry and dishes; wash cars, hose down restaurant and supermarket parking lots; or water lawns, drought-sensitive nonnative plants and golf courses just to make them look good.

Wonderful, clean water is a shared resource, and just because someone can afford to drill a well doesn’t entitle them to unfair amounts, at the expense of others, or in excess of the resource’s ability to renew itself.

Wells do recharge—even the deep, ancient aquifers—but the time scale is very long. This spring’s abundant moisture will take a long time—years, decades, even centuries—to work its way down the long sloping incline of the aquifer and into our Chesapeake wells.

Encouraging as recharging our wells may be, the areas where this process occurs for tidewater aquifers are in the western part of the Coastal Plain, and these are areas of intense development and have high levels of contamination with toxic combustion products and industrial residues.

Vast amounts of land surface in these areas are paved—we’ve all seen trucks with the motto, “Cover it with Asphalt.” Paving not only concentrates contaminants from the activities that occur on it, but it also speeds the runoff of water into pipes and ditches, and into the region’s streams and estuaries, not into forests, where the needed recharge occurs.

There are problems here, and we all need to be responsible users, put the brakes on excess withdrawals, and fight for the protection of the recharge areas upon which our resource depends for the future. Act now, act soon, or be sorry later.

Ancient Seawater Sends Search for Water Upstream

While this column discusses the situation for many Chesapeake Coastal Plain aquifers, in the lower Bay, a strikingly different situation occurs, one which has a history going back tens of millions of years to the impact of a great bolide (meteor, asteroid or comet) that blasted an immense crater where coastal and parts of tidewater Virginia lie today.

This impact was an environmental catastrophe of monumental proportions. Ejecta—material blasted out of the crater—flew for hundreds of miles. The sea filled in the void with cubic miles of brine, and much of the demolished rock and sediment collapsed back into the hole.

In the 35 millions of years since then, more than 1,000 feet of coastal sediment has covered this Exmore crater, and its existence was unknown.

About 1998 C. Wylie Poag of the U.S. Geological Survey, published his detective work about its existence.

The broken rock or breccia beneath coastal Virginia is still saturated with ancient seawater, and when modern wells are driven deep enough to penetrate the overlying sedimentary layers, saltwater comes up and is useless for commercial or domestic use.

With Tidewater Virginia and the major urban and port centers around Norfolk and Hampton Roads growing rapidly, the available water supply is near capacity, and the pressure for new sources has set planners looking at the Chesapeake’s rivers.

One proposal would dam Cahoke Creek, a tributary of the Pamunkey River, and fill the reservoir with water withdrawn from the adjacent Mattaponi River. The Mattaponi River is seat of an ancient Native American tribe that traces its ancestry to the Powhatan of John Smith’s time.

They have fished shad and herring runs for thousands of years, and were among the first Americans to establish a hatchery—almost 100 years ago—to sustain this dwindling fishery resource. As a result, the Mattaponi River is one of the few relatively undisturbed shad spawning habitats remaining on the Atlantic Coast.

Proposals to threaten it have met with fierce opposition from the tribe. Equally fierce is the politically astute maneuvering to get around this opposition and satisfy the demands of water-hungry development.