Have any of you fallen into a well? Let’s see a show of hands. I don’t see any hands other than mine. That’s right; the water guy actually fell into a well. I’ll tell you about it shortly.
This year, 2017, begins my 55th year as a water guy although, in truth, I retired from my day job 18 months ago. I began my water career as a chemist in a U. S. Geological Survey water laboratory in Lincoln, NE. After four years, my supervisor informed me the laboratory was closing, and that all but one chemist would be transferred. He offered me the job, but as a hydrologist, not a chemist. He indicated my academic background met the USGS requirements for hydrologist, and if I agreed, with a stroke of a pen, I could become a hydrologist. I couldn’t agree fast enough. The pen stroked, and I was a hydrologist, a field hydrologist at that. I quickly learned that as a hydrologist, you sometimes get wet!
I was assigned a project sampling groundwater in north-central Nebraska. We collected and analyzed samples to determine the chemical composition of the water. We re-sampled the same wells on a yearly basis to determine any changes. In the project area, we were interested in nitrate concentrations in groundwater. Nitrate is a component of fertilizers and human and animal waste, and we were concerned about the health of small children drinking water containing it.
Aquifers are subsurface formations that contain economically viable amounts of water. There are two types, water table (unconfined) and artesian (confined) aquifers. When you drill into an unconfined aquifer, water rises in the well casing to the same level as it occurs in the aquifer. However, an artesian aquifer is confined by a relatively impervious formation above it and is under pressure. When you drill into an artesian aquifer, water rises in the well to a level higher than its level in the aquifer. In some instances, it rises to the land surface and flows without a pump.
So what about falling into a well? This was my first trip as a practicing hydrologist, and I had not been to any of the wells. The first day was successful, and I thought, “This is a breeze.” I spent the night in a motel and fortified with a good breakfast, headed to the first well, about 30 miles from nowhere. It was early May, windy, and the temperature was in the low 40’s. We had permission from landowners to access their land to collect samples, and when I arrived at this well, I had never seen anything like it. It was a true flowing artesian well. There was a pipe, probably 4 inches in diameter rising about 10 feet above the land surface from which water was cascading. Around the base of the well was a stock tank probably 12 feet in diameter. Water overflowed the tank and created a small creek that flowed across the pasture. There was a flange around the base of the pipe and balanced on the flange, and the side of the stock tank was a 2X10 board. In the pasture was a herd of Angus cattle.
I realized that to fill my sample bottles, I would have to walk the plank and sample the cascading water, as the water in the stock tank was likely contaminated by cattle saliva and who knew what else. I knew I’d get wet; I just didn’t realize how wet. I grabbed my two sample bottles and carefully walked the plank to the pipe, no problem. I did get splattered considerably but was successful filling the bottles. Then I had to turn around. As I was almost completely turned, one of my feet slipped and off I went. I guess I was lucky I didn’t straddle the plank, but what I did was fall sideways, completely submerge for a couple of seconds in the tank. It was cold! Still clutching my precious bottles, I got to my feet, waded to the side of the tank and climbed out.
I was dripping wet and shivering. I got to my vehicle, stowed my samples, and opening my suitcase fished out a change of clothes. There in the field, miles from anywhere, I stripped naked with only an audience of curious Angus cattle. They mooed their appreciation, or maybe I’m just flattering myself. I only had one pair of boots with me. Dressed, I got in the van barefoot, still shaking from the cold, and fired up the heater full blast. I put my boots under the heat vent, and they were somewhat dry by the time I got to the next well that fortunately was just a simple hydrant in a rancher’s yard.
Yes, hydrologists get wet sometimes. But my first time, the time I fell into the “well” was by far my most memorable.
Please note: Because of a lengthy illness on the part of the writer, this column is modified from an earlier column first published in May 2012.