Scientists should be futurists. If we don’t understand flowing wells, then what chance do we have for a future?
At the end of July, I stood among a cluster of Sustainable Agriculture students from Iowa State University under a gazebo in Eagle Grove, Iowa staring at an elbow-bent pipe sprouting from the cement foundation. We were on a fieldtrip, an hour’s drive north of ISU, at mid-day during the summer’s drought to observe an artesian “flowing” well, but no water flowed from the pipe.
Water was supposed to continually gush from the pipe like a faucet. The water temperature would have been 55 degrees Fahrenheit because it tunneled underground all the way to the rock-lined basin under the pipe. I wanted a drink. Chickadees called tee-hee, tee-hee.
Dr. Lee Burras, our agronomy professor, toed his boots at the cement basin. His khaki cargo shorts flapped, but not even a dribble leaked from the pipe.
“Why is it dry today?” he asked himself. The rocks lining the bottom of the basin felt damp, like someone had just shut off the water, except there was no valve on the empty pipe.
An old man shuffled through us students. He took off round glasses from his face and wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shoulder.
“Any of you Christians?” the man asked. Before anyone could answer, he said, “Lord’s not sent any rain.” He put his hands in his pockets and shrugged.
“Do you know when the well stopped flowing?” Dr. Burras asked.
“It flowed in May, then stopped,” the old man said. He checked the pipe. “Then it started again. But just stopped all-out three weeks ago.”
Dr. Burras gave the old man his card. We piled back into university vans. I picked up my water canister. The metal was too hot to take a sip.
In winter, Ames received so much snow that plowed piles of mush clogged gutters. I yearned for summer’s warmth. Then, I wondered what ever happened to the water.
I searched online for “flowing well” and “Eagle Grove” and got “City Council Nixes Pump” in the Eagle Grove Eagle. In September, Parks and Recreation of Eagle Grove had advocated for an electric pump. Four of the six city council members voted against it on grounds of waiting for spring moisture to recharge the well. Sandy McGrath—one of the two in favor of the pump and the wife of John McGrath of the Parks and Recreation Board—said, “I get what they’re saying about waiting until next spring, but it hasn’t been flowing very well for two-and-a-half to three years.”
The pump would have cost up to $3,000 and taken away the uniqueness of the landmark. The author of the article wrote that Dr. Burras used the location as an educational tool, citing his field trips there. Gwen Amonson, a retired postal worker who used to take a drink on her route, had donated $250 toward the project and, after the city council tabled the pump, was quoted as saying, “I’m very disappointed.”
In my kitchen, I grabbed a bottle of Vitamin D off a shelf. I unscrewed the cap and shook a pill into my palm. I took one daily to make up for the lack of sunlight during winter.
An electric pump would only mask the problem. Pulling stagnant water up wouldn’t solve why water didn’t flow.
I poured myself a cup of water from the tap. I took a sip and then swallowed the pill.
At the beginning of the spring semester, I walked through the halls of the Science I building. I had an appointment with Dr. Burras and had also been referred to another scientist to ask them both what had happened to the water. Maps covered the hallway walls for an aquifer, hydrology impact of tileage drainage, and a U.S. Geological Survey of Iowa. The latter map split the state in two major elevation zones. The southeastern part rose five hundred to one thousand feet above sea level, while the northeast and western part rose one to two thousand feet.
Even without a clear nameplate in sight, I knew I was in the correct place. I knocked on the door before stepping inside for my appointment with Dr. William Simpkins, professor of hydrology.
“Yes, I’m ‘The Water Guy,’” Dr. Simpkins said. He welcomed me to sit down. Two computer monitors glowed behind him. “I look for geology’s effects—the interactions between rocks and water.”
I was curious about how Dr. Simpkins used to teach with Dr. Burras, and what he might have to say about the flowing well in Eagle Grove.
“Lee and I used to teach that class—Watershed Hydrology and Surficial Processes—from around ’96 to ’06. There used to be a ‘Flowing Well’ gas station south of Story City, right next to the road. That was much closer than Eagle Grove. In their infinite wisdom the Highway Department decommissioned it. They thought it would possibly contaminate an aquifer. Didn’t ask me about it.” Dr. Simpkins shook his head.
I didn’t mention that only Dr. Burras’s name had been mentioned in the Eagle Grove Eagle. The reporter hadn’t quoted him. I assumed the reporter hadn’t talked to Dr. Burras let alone Dr. Simpkins. I asked about the possibility of contamination.
“The reason the well flows is because its water comes from a higher surface,” Dr. Simpkins said. He turned around and started opening folders on his computer’s desktop. He continued, “Water in a flowing well can’t move down. The water all moves up.”
Dr. Simpkins pulled up a picture of himself at Eagle Grove’s flowing well. In one hand he stuck a garden hose to the end of that elbow-bent pipe I had seen in summer. He held the other end of the hose above his head. Water arced out, gushing above him and spilling to the ground.
Dr. Simpkins explained that there was practically no threat of a flowing well contaminating an aquifer, because the topography slopes down faster than the groundwater. The pressure would keep pushing more water out, unless the water from above let up.
“So, with the drought,” Dr. Simpkins said, “you have to look at where the water is coming from. It’s probably Mississippian. Ask the city water manager.”
I wondered if the well’s ceased flow was caused by something closer, and I asked, “What about any ethanol plants—”
“They’ve all got high-capacity water permits,” Dr. Simpkins said. He turned around again and brought up an online map. “Folks might mention the one in Goldfield,” he said and typed in coordinates. “See, it’s about five miles north, and that’s probably not something that would affect it.”
“Any other guesses?”
“It could just be clogged up with junk,” he said.
“Could be anything.”
Opposite me in the waiting corner of the Agronomy Department’s main office, a watercolor painting showed a team of horses plowing a curve around the bend of a dirt road. During summer I had seen “modern farming”: tens of miles of corn planted by barn-sized tractors, some of the cabs jarringly empty. Pre-programmed GPS devices sent machines rolling over the horizon.
“Sorry I’m late,” Dr. Burras said, power-walking around the corner.
In his office, he poured himself a Pepsi and offered me a cup. I declined and opened my field notes.
“Could you tell me about Eagle Grove and how the well might have ceased flow, in terms of the ramifications and decisions that would shape that?”
“Wow, well, I usually just say: ‘I’m a soils guy,’” Dr. Burras said and took out a sheet of paper. He sketched a 2-D hillside with straight lines across the width. He pointed to the top of the hill and said, “The headwaters, where the well gets pressure and water, aren’t necessarily close by, and so the stop of a flowing well is a regional issue. Potentially, this means there’s a changed regional hydrology.”
“Any idea where the well’s water is coming from?” I asked. “Dr. Simpkins mentioned that the well might be Mississippian.”
“I don’t think so,” Dr. Burras said. “There’s been summers when there’s no water in the Boone River, which is adjacent to Eagle Grove. Not only does Eagle Grove’s well flow, the one across the way in Clarion flows, too.”
I asked who else might know.
“Contact Deb Quade,” Dr. Burras said. “She’s Director of the Geological Survey in Iowa. She’ll be a good bridge between me and Bill.”
“You know,” he said, “California measures the yearly snowfall in the Rockies to figure out the Colorado River the next year. Scientists should be futurists. If we don’t understand flowing wells, then what chance do we have for a future? We’re just historians if we can’t tell what to do next.”
In summer, the wind pushed hot against Gwen Amonson’s face. On her mail route, she watched people take empty jugs down the road and pass by again with water sloshing. Gwen walked fifteen miles each day she delivered mail in Eagle Grove. She would check the neighborhood’s central bins, where folks dropped letters, and she picked up a tied sack filled with mail to carry.
As she walked, farmers drove down the road, filled up, and left. Gwen followed the stream of people to a pipe sunken into the ground. Out of it water continually flowed.
Gwen had kicked in $250 for the pump because she wanted to have that water again. She’d lived in Eagle Grove for 63 years, and even though she retired from her mail route in 1990, she went back to the well often. It had never stopped flowing.
She wanted the water back like a tap into her memories, but a pump would mask the situation. If the water flowed, then people might not think about the well.
At the end of our call, I asked Gwen, “Why not wait for spring’s moisture?”
“I guess, but it wouldn’t cost much,” she said. “Still, I haven’t seen the money.”
Over spring break, I drove two hours from Ames to the Flowing Well Park in Alden. On the other side of a cemetery, a bridge allowed pedestrians to cross a creek. Foot-thick ice jutted out of the water. Deer tracks dotted the snow. Green, copper-topped shotgun casings littered beneath the boughs of a tree. A Midland Energy truck idled, with a man eating chips inside it on his lunch break.
I hadn’t spotted the well when I stopped, so I began to leave. As I was backing out, I noticed a puddle of rusty water in slush. The nub of an opening dribbled tepid water and an elbow-bend pipe lay on the ground.
Before heading to Eagle Grove, I had looked up “flowing wells” and “Iowa” and found Alden’s park listed. Also, I had remembered Clarion’s well from Dr. Burras. I planned to stop at both before Eagle Grove.
The road from Alden to Clarion led straight to the horizon, but only lasted a thirty-minute drive. Cornfields—with remnant stalks and crusted mounds of old snow piled on the previous season’s rows—converged to an endpoint. Hawks perched on telephone poles at the fields’ edges waiting for mice to skitter out.
A few miles outside of Clarion, a wooden sign read: Benson Flowing Well Park. I pulled into a gravel semi-circle. A huddle of trees broke the big, wide-open landscape. Beyond the semi-circle, four posts supported a shingled roof.
A pipe, sunken into a mound of cement, bent over a rusty drain. No water came out. I crouched down in the dried dirt and blew into the pipe. My air returned stale. Perhaps the water hibernated beneath the potential metric surface? Deep down, the ground needed recharging.
On the way to Eagle Grove, train tracks paralleling the road led into an ethanol facility. I pulled off before the guardhouse. It was the ethanol plant of Goldfield that Dr. Simpkins had said had high-capacity water permits.
Two water tower-sized vats huddled beyond the road’s shoulder. On the side, the company had painted a corncob engulfed in flames.
At Eagle Grove, a jug littered the empty basin where the pipe above was supposed to continually spout. I hoped a citizen of the town had put the jug there as a marker to watch for as they drove by. Maybe this citizen waited to spot their make-shift flotation device. They would park, walk to the gazebo, submerge the jug, and then bring it home filled with water.
When I called Dr. Deborah Quade, the supervisor of the Iowa Geological and Water Survey, she was surprised that the flowing well had ceased flow. I didn’t understand what she meant when she said, “There’s a lot of competition for little water.” There aren’t that many people in Iowa. She recommended I call Chad Fields, one of several geologists on her team.
“Supply is the issue,” Fields said.
I was stumped about how so few people who lived in Iowa could correlate with the water supply soaking up among them. I asked when the tipping point would be. When might people turn on their faucets, but nothing would come out?
“When the rural water system goes,” Fields said, “cows will get sold, or die.”
In summer, on feedlots, animals got sprayed with water to cool down. The issue wasn’t about human sustainability, but about consumption. Other agricultural businesses in the area might consume more. I didn’t know how to find out those numbers. Fields gave me the number to the city of Eagle Grove’s water treatment plant.
Mark Stockdale, the Operator, picked up the phone at Eagle Grove’s Water Treatment Plant. He said there were no permits required for any companies using Eagle Grove’s water. Only one that he could think of, AGP, a soybean processor, used quite a bit of water. He didn’t give me any numbers. He said they paid the same rate as everyone else. Neither the plant nor the city had any plan for voluntary reduction of consumption.
“We’re pumping a deep aquifer system,” he said, and then hung up.
When I called Mike Gannon, a geologist who constructed hydrogeology models for the Survey, he wasn’t surprised about the flowing wells ceasing flow. He sounded bored. His answer was that, “normal precipitation would be an improvement.”
Iowa carried over a nine-inch rainfall debt from the summer. The drought had been the third worst the state had experienced. The frozen snow kept moisture from trickling down and recharging the ground.
Gannon said, “Wait for the first rain. It’ll wash away the snow. Hopefully that happens before the budding trees and sprouting flowers soak it up.”
All the geologists of the Survey had pointed me to Source Water Tracker, a database holding records of drilled wells connected to cities’ water supplies. After talking to all of the geologists, I looked up Eagle Grove, which had five wells on file. The wells tapped into three aquifers: Pleistocene (buried gravel), Devonian (deep buried rock), and Mississippian (the river way). While two of the five wells were active, two were not used, and one was on standby. None were the coordinates for the flowing well.
In Ames, it rained throughout April. Snow washed into the gutters, while grass got high. In the late afternoons, I could hear the hum of mowers instead of plows.
Even after calling all the scientists and the water operators and making my trifecta trip to Eagle Grove, Alden, and Clarion, I didn’t know fundamental answers about the flowing well. When had it been drilled? How deep was the water? Had the water ever completely ceased flowing this long? Why was this happening?
I had been calling David Carr, Director of Parks and Recreation of Eagle Grove, for a while. I never spoke to him. Finally, he left a message that I should call Bob Torkelson, the President of Parks and Recreation.
Bob’s family moved to Eagle Grove around the end of the 1988 drought that most Iowans compare to the 2012 drought. Bob used to run cross country in high school. During his senior year, he would grab a drink from the flowing well and had never remembered it being dry.
When I spoke with Bob, he blamed the Goldfield ethanol plant for the ceased flow. For the past several years, the flow had let up. This was around the plant had been installed.
Within the past week it had rained almost half a foot in Ames. So, I asked about Eagle Grove’s rainfall.
“It’s been raining,” Bob said. “And the well trickled a while ago.”
I started planning when to head to Eagle Grove again.
“But it stopped a few hours later,” Bob said. “We’re planning to vote again on the pump. You know: drop it in, fake the flow, and let Mother Nature do her thing. It’ll fill back up, but we want to have water now.”
Every call I made led to another. Nothing was happening because nobody was saying anything. One night, I started writing a summary of what I knew, and it turned into an epic 1:00a.m. email to Dr. Quade, Dr. Simpkins, and Dr. Burras:
“I wanted to inform all of you that I spoke with Bob Torkelson, the President of Eagle Grove’s Parks and Recreation, and he told me that the flowing well had ‘trickled’ a bit this week, but then ceased flow again. Also, he said that Eagle Grove’s city council is voting again to install an electric pump on that flowing well. Apparently, pressure from the citizens of Eagle Grove desiring water from that well has sparked action.
“I want to suggest y’all to offer wisdom to Bob to pass along to the council.”
“[We’re] just historians if we can’t tell what to do next,” Dr. Burras told me about scientists’ role in the community.”
After I sent my message, I went to sleep. In the morning, I opened a flood of e-mails:
Dr. Quade forwarded Mike Gannon and asked him about offering advice, and also suggested installing a transducer—a measurement tool—on the well as a PR deal between the Survey and the city of Eagle Grove.
Gannon wrote that he wasn’t surprised about the well’s flow, because the water levels all over the state had dropped between two to ten feet. He wouldn’t comment on the impact of pumping the well. He took a guess that the well’s origin was Pleistocene, but acknowledged there was no log.
Dr. Simpkins mentioned the well was degrading over time and that the city should know all the information before installing a pump. He suggested Dr. Burras as a candidate to get Eagle Grove’s attention.
Gannon had called Bob, and then found out that the council would have to get all the information before installing a pump.
Dr. Simpkins suggested appealing toward an economic perspective of persuasion with the cost of the pump, about whether or not something should happen.
Gannon’s last email said that the potential impact of Central Iowa Renewable Resources’ ethanol plant in Goldfield may be having an effect on the flowing well—or not. They were permitted to use 262 million gallons of water per year (mgy), and used 210 mgy in 2012, a 10% increase from 2010 to 2012. The plant went online in 2006.
I wanted to make one more trip out to Eagle Grove before anything else happened.
A few rainy May days later, I drove to Eagle Grove. Trees had begun to bud and dandelions’ yellow seedheads speckled the lush green lawns.
It had been nine months since I first visited Eagle Grove. As I walked to the gazebo, I heard an echoing sound. I had heard so much noise, all to listen to this sound.
Water from the well flowed through the pipe. No electric pump forced it. The water splashed into a Simply Lemonade jug, filling it up and over, continually. The excess water drained down into the rock-basin, recharging the ground.
I bent over and stuck my face in the flow. I took a sip. The water tasted rusty and left my mouth feeling dry.