KNIGHTDALE — If you want to know the secret to Joe Kanze's luscious green lawn, look under the fake rock.
There, in his backyard, you'll find a recently drilled irrigation well topped with a high-tech Danish water pump. At the touch of a button, Kanze can douse his third-of-an-acre lot with 12 gallons a minute of groundwater.
"It was an expensive deal," says Kanze, 72, who paid more than $6,000 to have the well and pump installed last month. "But you know what? I'm retired now and this is my avocation."
With most Triangle water systems having banned outdoor watering in response to the drought, an increasing number of residents are going underground to get around such restrictions. During the five-month period between June and October, Wake County issued 82 permits allowing property owners to drill irrigation wells on their land. That's more than three times as many as the county issued during the same period last year.
Officials in Johnston, Orange and Chatham counties say they are also seeing a spike in applications for irrigation wells in recent months.
Drilling irrigation wells during a drought is not without controversy. Gov. Mike Easley has said all North Carolinians, including those on well water, should stop watering their lawns because all sources are precious during a drought.
"I think it's an issue that is emerging really rapidly," said John Morris, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. In the Triangle, Morris said, tapping into groundwater remains an extremely local issue because of the complexity of the geology.
"The exact extent to which irrigation wells could interfere is a little hard to predict in the Piedmont and the mountains," he said.
Morris said the issue is likely to be taken up next year by the General Assembly's Environmental Resource Commission, which could recommend that counties toughen their permit application process.
Historically, counties have been concerned mostly about cross-contamination, or making sure that irrigation wells are a certain distance from property lines, house foundations, septic systems and underground storage tanks.
In Joe Kanze's case, Wake County officials had to make sure his irrigation well did not interfere with the water and sewer system that serves his Knightdale subdivision.
Where water flows
Knightdale buys its water from Raleigh, which draws from the Falls Lake reservoir. Because the Neuse River and other streams are largely fed by groundwater, it is possible to pump the groundwater table low enough to affect the rivers.
John Fountain, head of the Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department at N.C. State University, said that scenario is unlikely. A more likely outcome, he said, is that a large well might lower the water table for a neighbor, particularly if you're a well-owner in an area where municipal water and sewer service is not available.
Greg Bright, supervisor of Wake County's groundwater program, agreed that the number of irrigation wells dug in the county is unlikely to affect the health of Falls Lake. "That's a bit of a stretch to try and tie those two together," said Bright, whose department monitors about 30,000 wells in Wake County.
In Orange County, where 40 percent of residents rely on wells for drinking water, officials have issued 21 irrigation well permits since July. In nondrought years the county typically issues four to five irrigation well permits over an entire year.
Last week, Tom Konsler, the county's environmental health director, held a workshop with residents to dispel misunderstandings about irrigation wells. The wells are not tapping into an underground aquifer, Konsler said, but rather are accessing groundwater that runs along fractures in consolidated rock.
Konsler said there are large reservoirs of water in the rock layers, and Orange County neither encourages nor discourages the drilling of irrigation wells.
"If they meet the criteria for siting the well, we would issue the permit," Konsler said.
An expensive solution
Jim Bynum, owner of Goldston Well Drilling in Cary, said cost is often the reason people decide not to install an irrigation well. A well and pump costs anywhere from $5,000 to $6,000, with the price rising the deeper the well. The average home well in Wake County is about 380 feet deep, Bynum said, but in some areas of the county it's necessary to go much deeper.
"You don't know until you start drilling," he said.
While some might consider Kanze's super-charged irrigation system excessive, he defends the investment. In the last year, Kanze said he's spent between $12,000 and $15,000 on sod, new landscaping and an irrigation system.
"I could either write that off as a bad investment or go out and put in a well," Kanze said.
Kanze has put a sign in his front yard notifying the neighbors that his irrigation water is being supplied by a well.
"They haven't come over yet asking to borrow a cup of sugar and some water," he said.
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