Thirst No More

With hard work and some knowl­edge, a wa­ter sup­ply might be closer than you think

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Dana Ben­ner

With hard work and some knowl­edge, a wa­ter sup­ply might be closer than you think

Amer­i­cans are quite a lucky bunch. Of­ten, we take our un­lim­ited ac­cess to safe drink­ing wa­ter for granted. Let’s turn the ta­bles. Sup­pose you sud­denly lose or have lim­ited ac­cess to drink­ing wa­ter. Of course, prep­pers have stock­piled wa­ter for such an emer­gency, but how long will that sup­ply last? Even­tu­ally, you’ll need more in or­der to sur­vive.

I find it dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that, de­spite the num­ber of wells in my area, few peo­ple know about hand-dig­ging a well. There are plenty of drilling op­er­a­tions that re­quire equip­ment, but the method I’ll out­line here re­quires no heavy equip­ment; just picks, shov­els and mus­cle.

To write this piece, I com­bined my knowl­edge of hand-dig­ging sump pits, the his­tory of the first set­tlers to this area and the work be­ing done by non-gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions (NGOS) world­wide. Hope­fully, the in­for­ma­tion I pre­sent here will make a dif­fer­ence should you find your­self in dire need of wa­ter.

Hand-dig­ging His­tory

Peo­ple have been hand-dig­ging wells for eons. Well re­mains have been found in Europe that date back to the Cop­per, Bronze and Iron Ages. These are dif­fi­cult to find be­cause many were just sim­ple un­re­in­forced holes. In the early days of Amer­i­can col­o­niza­tion, ev­ery farm had a well, many of which were hand­dug. For­tu­nately, many of these were de­signed to with­stand the tests of time, and can still be lo­cated and re­searched to­day.

Lo­ca­tion is Ev­ery­thing

Dig­ging a hole doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally yield wa­ter. You must dig where you be­lieve you’ll dis­cover wa­ter. Study the to­pog­ra­phy be­fore dig­ging.

Wa­ter flows down­hill. I found ev­i­dence of this while vis­it­ing Ari­zona. I was on the Verde Canyon Rail­road trav­el­ing through Verde Canyon, which is a land of sand and rock. While the high ground was rocky and dry, the Verde River at the bot­tom of the canyon

sup­ported a small wil­low and cot­ton­wood for­est. This gave me the idea to look for the types of plants that re­quire a good wa­ter sup­ply.

I tested the idea while hik­ing the canyons of Se­dona, Ari­zona. From above a canyon, I spot­ted a small wil­low and cot­ton­wood clus­ter. Sur­face wa­ter wasn’t vis­i­ble, which meant the trees were sur­viv­ing on ground­wa­ter. I have no idea how deep the wa­ter was, but if nec­es­sary I would try to dig a well in such a place.

In the North­east where I live, plenty of ar­eas ap­pear dry in the sum­mer, but in the spring, they prac­ti­cally be­come aquatic from rain and melt­ing snow. Of­ten, brooks and streams are there one minute and then sud­denly dis­ap­pear. Stand­ing wa­ter in­di­cates that the wa­ter ta­ble be­low it is full or al­most full. As the ta­ble drops, sur­face wa­ter is sucked down to re­plen­ish it, which ex­plains why a dis­ap­pear­ing brook or stream went un­der­ground. These ar­eas are worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing as po­ten­tial well lo­ca­tions.

Dous­ing, which uses a forked stick to lo­cate wa­ter, has been prac­ticed for ages. Of course,

“Of­ten, we take our ac­cess to safe drink­ing wa­ter for granted.”

there are doubters. Does it re­ally work? I can’t say, but if I face a sit­u­a­tion in which find­ing a spot to dig a well means life or death, I’m go­ing to try it.

Tap the Source

Be­fore you start dig­ging, ex­am­ine the soil com­po­si­tion. Is it mainly sand, gravel and clay, or is it full of rocks and boul­ders? If there are nu­mer­ous large boul­ders, try to find an­other area. Overly sandy soils are out, too, be­cause they can lead to the well col­laps­ing.

Once you’ve de­cided to dig for wa­ter, how do you go about it? Re­mem­ber: we’re in an emer­gency here. You must se­cure wa­ter for your fam­ily us­ing picks, shov­els and other hand tools. If you suc­ceed, all is well. If not, you’ve ex­pended en­ergy for noth­ing.

Cer­tain times are bet­ter than oth­ers to dig a well. The ob­vi­ous good time is when you’ve run out of wa­ter, but the best time is when you have wa­ter re­serves. In other words, you’ve scouted and know a spot and can af­ford to wait out ideal con­di­tions just be­fore the rainy sea­son or spring snowmelt. You don’t want the soil too dry, or the hole could col­lapse; too wet, and the same thing can hap­pen. Even worse, it could fill with wa­ter while you’re in the hole.

Even in ideal con­di­tions, cave-ins are pos­si­ble. To help pre­vent this, the sides of the hole must be re­in­forced. Be­fore you dig, gather as many boards as you can (longer is bet­ter). When pos­si­ble, spe­cial con­crete sleeves can be

placed in the hole, and ad­di­tional sleeves can be added to pre­vent cave-ins as you dig deeper. How­ever, in an emer­gency, it’s un­likely you’ll have ac­cess to con­crete ac­ces­sories, so boards are your best bet. Metal or plas­tic cul­verts are an­other pos­si­bil­ity. If avail­able, they will work bet­ter than boards and can be left in the hole to act as the liner.

Mea­sure an area at least 5 feet in di­am­e­ter. Us­ing your shovel and pick, start dig­ging evenly around the en­tire di­am­e­ter. Af­ter a cou­ple of feet, start lin­ing the hole with the boards, in­sert­ing them ver­ti­cally (or place the first length of cul­vert). Make sure to fit the boards closely. Use cross mem­bers to hold the boards tight against the sides of the hole. Con­tin­u­ously ham­mer the boards down as you dig deeper. All of this, al­though very time­con­sum­ing, helps pro­tect you from cave-ins.

Hand-dug wells tend to be shal­low, about 5 to 65 feet deep. This re­quires a lot of work, and ex­pends en­ergy and calo­ries you prob­a­bly can’t af­ford to lose. You must con­sider the risks ver­sus re­wards. One op­tion is to as­sem­ble with neigh­bors to share the work and the re­ward. Of course, this op­tion de­pends upon your re­la­tion­ship with po­ten­tial part­ners and how you could work out the host of vari­ables as­so­ci­ated with shared ac­cess and us­age.

This is com­mon sense, but worth men­tion­ing: Al­ways have a re­li­able way out of the hole. If you hit wa­ter, the hole could fill up fast. Keep a lad­der or other means to get out nearby.

If you’re us­ing a metal or plas­tic cul­vert, you al­ready have the ma­te­rial to line the well hole. If not, use bricks or stones to line the sides of the well. This will help sta­bi­lize the well and pre­vent cave-ins later.

Once the well is es­tab­lished, back-fill the gap be­tween your liner and the hole (if there is a gap) us­ing crushed stone, gravel or small rocks. This will keep sed­i­ment out of the well wa­ter. Cap your well to keep de­bris from con­tam­i­nat­ing the wa­ter.

“Hand-dug wells tend to be shal­low, about 5 to 65 feet deep.”

Last Re­sort

In emer­gen­cies, a func­tion­ing well might be your only choice for potable wa­ter. How­ever, think it through be­fore tack­ling this en­deavor. Are you go­ing to stay in one place, or are you go­ing to be mov­ing? Wa­ter is pre­cious, so try to con­ceal and de­fend it.

Once your wa­ter sup­ply runs dry, have a backup plan, if pos­si­ble, in the form of a well. It could save your life. Also, have a way to pu­rify the wa­ter if you’re un­sure whether it’s safe to drink.


(left) The cap on this well helps keep the wa­ter from be­ing con­tam­i­nated by sur­face-wa­ter runoff. The stone wall pro­vides a mea­sure of safety for peo­ple and an­i­mals.

Dig­ging a well by hand can be dif­fi­cult and ex­haust­ing work. De­pend­ing upon your re­la­tion­ship with neigh­bors and nearby friends, you might want to con­sider en­list­ing their help and then shar­ing ac­cess to the fruits of your la­bor.

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