Some Boise wells are drying up amid rapid development. What’s going on?

Billy Griffin's well in Southwest Boise
Posted at 2:55 PM, Jun 24, 2021

There’s only three feet of water left in the bottom of Sheryl Gaide Lundquist’s well.

A few months ago, Lundquist’s son and daughter-in-law, who live in the house, noticed their water pump shutting on and off when they tried to take showers or wash their dishes. They installed a new pump before they realized that wasn’t the problem. It was the water level receding at the bottom of their 112 foot deep well.

Lundquist is now sitting on an eight-month waiting list to get a new well drilled to restore water access. In the meantime, her family members are trying everything not to run the water supply dry before a new well goes in.

“They’re using gallon containers and big camping containers on the counter to drink from, buckets of water to use for the toilets and they come to my other house to shower or wherever else they can go,” Lundquist said, standing in the front yard of the Southwest Boise home. “It’s been a trial for sure.”

This isn’t a one-off occurrence. Residents of Southwest Boise living in older homes west of Maple Grove and south of the interstate have been reporting their wells losing water in the past six months due to the water table in the area gradually dropping. The high demand for well drilling due to construction in the Treasure Valley and the steep price tag that comes with it leaves people like Lundquist on the way to high and dry.

Is the water disappearing?

This doesn’t mean the Treasure Valley is running out of water, though.

Even though the rest of the west, and even other parts of Idaho, are gripped in the depths of a severe drought this summer, officials at the Idaho Department of Water Resources say the Boise area has plenty of water from reservoirs north of the city. However, things are different for homes still on well water in Southwest Boise that are losing their water as farmland continues to disappear.

Below the surface, there are several levels of aquifers residents source their water from. The decades-old wells going dry in Southwest Boise were tapped into the shallowest aquifer, with depths ranging less than 100 feet. Some wells in the area are as shallow as 45 feet into the Earth. This is in comparison to the deeper aquifer hundreds of feet down Suez pumps from for newer subdivisions on its privately-owned piped water system.

Dennis Owsley, a technical hydrogeologist with IDWR, said this shallow aquifer many Southwest Boise well owners use for their water used to be mostly recharged from water seeping out of the bottom of irrigation canals and through watering agriculture land. But, now that those former farms are subdivisions, it made the water table in this specific area decline.

“There’s been a few instances where we’ve seen some shallow aquifer levels drop a little bit and it’s likely due to a change in the land use practices we’ve seen in the past few decades,” Owsley said. “The area behind us used to be all farm ground and now it’s all subdivisions. What happens when we convert farm ground to subdivisions we lose the incidental recharge.”

Well run out? Time to pay up

Getting a new well dug isn’t a cheap date.

Billy Griffin started noticing problems with his well last spring. Like Lundquist, he pulled his pump out of the ground and realized the water level in his roughly 40 foot deep well was dangerously low. While he waited for someone to come and drill a new one roughly 80 feet down, he had to carefully conserve his water until a company could come out and dig a new one.

By the time it was finished, he was out $20,000. Lundquist is looking at a similar price tag to get her well back on track.

“I think it was a month or month and a half before (a company) could come out here, so we had to nurse the well,” he said. “It was low, but it wasn’t totally out.”

BoiseDev and Idaho News 6 called several well drilling companies in the Treasure Valley to get an interview for this story, but every company contacted declined due to the high demand for their services.

What about Suez?

Griffin and Lundquist aren’t far from the Suez water system, but getting hooked up isn’t cheap either.

Suez, a French-owned company that provides the Treasure Valley with drinking water, is regulated by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. By state code, Suez cannot use funds from current customers to pay for new growth. This means new hookups, whether individual homeowners like Lundquist and Griffin looking to get onto the system when their well goes out or brand new subdivisions, have to pay upfront to connect.

Lundquist’s home is right next door to someone on Suez water, but she said it would still cost more for her to hook on to the system than dig a new well. Suez spokesperson Jane Kreller said these costs could be reduced when entire streets or neighborhoods decide to connect at the same time, but this can be difficult to organize because wells often don’t go out all at the same time. Residents with dry wells who wish to connect to Suez are prioritized first to be connected, she said.

Then, if one household pays the tens of thousands of dollars to drill a deeper well, they won’t be incentivized to pay to connect to Suez.

“When you talk about drilling wells one by one that becomes very cost prohibitive,” Kreller said. “I think something really important is to be aware of what’s happening with your neighbors. If one of your neighbors is having their wells go dry, then the likelihood that those wells were drilled to the same depth is probably pretty high. It’s time when you hear about that to start looking into other options.”

No matter what, either option to address a dry well leaves residents without a quick, or affordable solution. Lundquist said there should be more assistance for people in this position to be able to connect to the water system, or get a new well dug who cannot afford it.

“We’ve never been at the end of the water line so it has drastically changed,” she said. “The state needs to help us. People are in dire need. It’s not like you just have an extra $20,000, $30,000 in your pocket to build a well.”

This story produced as a partnership between BoiseDev's Margaret Carmel and Idaho News 6.