When Ann Pincumbe’s kids host a sleepover, their friends know the drill. You don’t turn on the tap. You don’t go to the refrigerator’s drinking dispenser. If you’re thirsty, get water from coolers in the laundry room.
On Mount Olive Road in central Stafford County, the Pincumbes are known as the family with five wells.
Since closing on their house in 2013, Ann and her husband, who has served recently in Afghanistan, have spent more than $50,000 drilling and testing wells. She said they have run out of money to hook up the fifth well, though it has been drilled.
They also have a problem with high levels of sodium in their fourth well. If Pincumbe doesn’t clean regularly, salt builds up on the faucets and shower heads. Rust encircles the rim of the washing machine. Each month, the mother of three pays for about 50 gallons of water to be delivered in coolers, which she sets up in the laundry room.
“We’re out a significant amount of money. We love our home, but we have come to really hate it,” Pincumbe said.
Pincumbe isn’t alone. Jeff Adams, who runs Walnut Hill Farm behind Pincumbe’s house, said he has struggled with his wells since the 2011 earthquake.
Within a two-week period following the quake, he said, his water supply from his well dropped so dramatically that he began hauling water from the Mountain View Fire Station until the county caught him.
Since then, his water supply has remained low, barely allowing him to sustain his farm, he said.
At least five other nearby residents expressed concerns over low yields from their wells, the wells’ water quality, or what may happen with the area’s water supply as a nearby subdivision begins to take shape.
County officials suspect that the problems Pincumbe and her neighbors are experiencing are rare.
But they acknowledged that their conclusions are speculative. State officials say they don’t have enough data on the sustainability of groundwater resources in Stafford and more western parts of the Commonwealth.
“Assumptions were made that groundwater resources could support this increased demand [into 2040]. This may or may not be the case,” stated the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in an October 2015 report on those water sources.
Some officials believe the Pincumbes live on land where fractures in the underground layer of rock—where water travels—known as an aquifer, are scarce.
Pincumbe’s land is situated on the Piedmont system, where groundwater is plentiful where there are fractures, but a diverse geology has led to a wide variation of water quality and well yields, according to VDEQ.
Just over two miles from Pincumbe’s house, a parcel was proposed to become a quarry in 1988. The application was denied, but those who wanted to build the quarry said groundwater wouldn’t be an issue there, indicating a lack of fractures.
Tommy Thompson with the Virginia Department of Health, which administers well permits, said he would have received more applications for new wells if the problem was more widespread. Stafford’s Deputy County Administrator Keith Dayton said more residents would have complained.
But they also acknowledged homeowners aren’t always forthcoming about well failures because it would affect their home values.
There isn’t hard data to know for sure, others said.
“That’s one of the concerns that we expressed [in the state water resources plan], that we don’t have enough monitoring wells,” said Tammy Stevenson with the VDEQ’s office of water supply. “We don’t have a clear picture. That’s what we are trying to get a handle on.”
Of the 400 monitoring wells across the state, none are in Stafford, and only large local water users are required to report to DEQ. Because part of the county relies on a more sensitive aquifer, heavy water users within that more sensitive area are subject to greater regulation. But Pincumbe’s land, and most of Stafford County, lies outside the area that has more oversight.
Stafford County also doesn’t have monitoring wells, and the county’s latest groundwater study is 12 years old, conducted in 2004 amid concerns of the drought of 2001 to 2003. The county isn’t required to produce annual water studies.
VDH staffers administer well permits, but are much less likely to perform well inspections themselves.
“We never have to step onto the property,” Tommy Thompson said. “The trend is to the private sector.”
Thompson said his office “doesn’t have any option” but to trust the reports from the soil consultants and well drillers.
“We know there are better soil consultants than others,” Thompson said. “If they want to get as many houses as they can, they know what soil consultants to call.”
Cliff Trevens with the National Groundwater Association, a private nonprofit representing well-drilling contractors and others in the groundwater industry, said the consultants’ and well drillers’ reputations rely on drilling productive wells and reporting accurate numbers.
But the association does support the development of a nationwide well network to gain a clearer picture of the status of groundwater.
“We need to get a better handle on these groundwater levels because of factors like urbanization and climate change,” Trevens said.
Erin Ling, program coordinator of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program for Virginia Cooperative Extension, said it’s hard to say whether the problems of Pincumbe and her neighbor could be local or indicative of a larger problem.
“It’s hard to know what exactly is going on underground. In general, if we know there is population growth in the area, we know we are reducing the amount of water to get back into the ground to recharge,” she said. “In the Piedmont, there is just less water. In the Piedmont, with added development, and less recharge, the problem will be compounded.”
Jay Famiglietti wrote in a 2014 commentary piece for the peer-reviewed Nature Climate Change journal that the myth of limitless water and free-for-all mentality that has pervaded groundwater use must come to an end.
He is a hydrologist, professor of Earth System Science and of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Irvine, and the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
He said satellite data indicates that 20 of the world’s 37 major aquifers are being depleted at alarmingly rapid rates. It’s the equivalent of continually dipping into your savings account, he has said.
“The irony of groundwater is that despite its critical importance to global water supplies ... groundwater is often poorly monitored and managed. In the developing world, oversight is often nonexistent. The result has been a veritable groundwater ‘free for all’: Property owners who can afford to drill wells generally have unlimited access to groundwater,” he wrote in Nature Climate Change.
Though the groundwater picture remains unclear, wells continue to be drilled.
Approximately 10,000 homes in Stafford rely on private wells for water, according to the county’s comprehensive plan.
A well driller doesn’t have to prove a well can produce the state-required minimum of three gallons per minute until someone is ready to occupy an already-built house.
And state law isn’t clear, Thompson said, when it comes to how long the well must meet that threshold. Several sample applications into his office, he said, reported the three gallons per minute for an hour or two. Extra storage capacity is required if the three gallons per minute isn’t met.
Pincumbe’s home was built and four wells were drilled on her four-acre lot when she decided to close on the contract. The fourth, 600-foot well received all necessary VDH permits, which came as a relief after the previous three wells, one as deep as 800 feet, all produced less than a gallon per minute.
But it wasn’t long until Pincumbe noticed the salt problem and lower yields from the fourth well. “We did everything the way you are supposed to do it,” Pincumbe said. “The home buyer isn’t protected in this at all.”
Pincumbe and some of her neighbors don’t understand why a builder or developer wouldn’t be required to prove adequate water supply before a house is built, rather than occupied.
Changing that requirement would be up to the state, Stafford officials said. The county could, however, withhold building permits until water-quality standards are met.
A cluster development called Saratoga Woods near Pincumbe’s neighborhood has caused particular angst among her and her neighbors about their future water supply. But again, county officials say state requirements for cluster developments across 40 percent of Stafford have tied their hands.
The state also would have to give Stafford authority to require water-related testing before approving new homes, county officials said. Fauquier County requires a hydrogeological report, in which a geologist or engineer assesses groundwater quantity and quality, during the application process for subdivisons of a certain size.
Such reports were one of many recommendations in Stafford’s 2004 groundwater study, which concluded that there was adequate groundwater supply but that vulnerabilities existed.
“Not all properties are created equal. It’s very dependent on location. That is why you see language that requires specific hydrogeologic testing for specific parcels,” Dan Holmes with the Piedmont Environmental Council said. “Anytime you are using groundwater, it is one more pipe into the ground. The question is if the aquifer being replenished at a rate that will allow for that new straw to be placed in the ground?”
Pincumbe and her neighbors wish the county and state would take a more proactive stance when it comes to groundwater.
“That’s news to me,” Supervisor Gary Snellings said of the VDEQ’s push for greater monitoring. “If they contact us, I would be in favor of it.”
Residents want an updated groundwater study and greater regulation before building permits or developments are approved.
Pincumbe also would like to see the county’s public utilities extended to her neighborhood. The approximately four-mile extension likely would cost between $500,000 and $2.5 million.
A county program allows for extensions to neighborhoods experiencing utility problems. It is supported by a one-time fee users pay to hook up to public utilities. The extension to Pincumbe’s neighborhood would require multiple local approvals.
Snellings plans to hold a town hall meeting Oct. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Gayle Middle School. He said he has requested VDH data on well failures.