Purdyville and The Drought of ’99

Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from This Week in Purdyville, Vol. 2, #29, originally written in August 1999 for an audience of family and family friends.

The eastern seaboard of the United States has been stricken by a drought. As the dry and intermittently scorching weather continues to drag on, state after state declares drought warnings and drought emergencies.

The drought is affecting us. We are not the worst off, but neither are we the best. The grass has gone brown at Purdyville, but the leaves have not started to shrivel up on the trees, something that is happening in other places. Dry weather brings many problems. Some are mere annoyances, others have the potential for serious trouble. In the former category are brown grass and wilting plants in the garden. Irritating, but life continues. In the latter category is our well, which has altered life around Purdyville. Sadly, this is not the first occurrence of well trouble, but it does not make the latest any more pleasant. The threat of the well running dry is not nice, under any circumstances.

Our well is an artesian well, which means it is shallow, and when the water table is high, it actually overflows from a pipe in our basement flowing away in a trench. When all is right in the world we have a supply of cold, fresh water. (Very tasty, natural additives only.) However, when the water table drops our well becomes a bane. We can tell when it is starting to get low when our fresh water starts tasting metallic and sulfurous. (Tastes horrible, natural additives only.) The sulfurous stench permeates whatever it is used in…juice…coffee…tea. You can taste it when you drink and smell it when you wash dishes or water the animals. This is a warning of dangers to come, a warning that if ways are not changed the well will run dry. One particularly dry summer this actually happened. Someone was at the sink drawing water at the same time the washing machine was going…and the water stopped flowing. [Author’s Note: This moment lives on in infamy in Mom’s mind. She will tell anyone willing to listen how our well went dry once. While I admit there was a severity in the incident, I feel there is an inaccuracy in saying our well ran dry, since evidence favors the fact that our pump was actually trying to draw water faster than it came in, not that water totally stopped coming in, for water could be drawn later that day. Hence, it did not run dry, per se.]

The first dry summer when we lived here-the year escapes me-introduced us to this problem of water, and we haven’t been able to shake it since. Whether it is because we have an additional neighbor drawing water since we first moved here, or because we have more people in the family drawing water, or because the summers have been drier, or all three, doesn’t really matter in the end. In the summer, especially late July and August, we watch the water carefully. The taste of sulfur and we know it is time for conservation mode.

This year the fears of low water started early. The summer began with a shortage of rain and it was the perfect setup for a nightmare: the entire summer without sufficient rain and our well wouldn’t be able to hold out. Rain soothed our fears for a time, but July came and the rain stopped again. Late July arrived and the sulfur taste had come again. It lingers with us, along with the fear of no water tomorrow morning. (Some of us take a more grim view than others.)

Conservation mode consists essentially of not using any more water than we must. In a practical sense this means not taking any more baths or showers than you must and saving the water from your shower and bath, not watering plants, avoiding messing up any more dishes than you must, finding other water sources, and flushing the toilet with dishwater.

All of the above take time, are bothersome, and hard to remember. A gardener is loathe to let his plants wilt and the toilet doesn’t look particularly pleasant with dishwater in it, but as it stands, we have no choice. A little bit of rain has fallen today, enough to moisten the grass and revive the garden life so that it is not in imminent danger of expiring, but the water is still sulfurous and like everyone else, we are still waiting for real rain.