Dig­ging Deeper

The first big hur­dle we had to cross in build­ing our new ranch was find­ing wa­ter.

EQUUS - - Starting From Scratch - Text and pho­to­graphs by Bob­bie Jo Lieber­man

Fall­ing in love with our New Mex­ico prop­erty was the easy part---not only were the 55 acres of rolling hills stud­ded with ju­niper trees and pinyon pines and cov­ered in na­tive blue grama grass, but they were sur­rounded by a half dozen moun­tain ranges. My husband Kenny We­ber and I en­vi­sioned our horses travers­ing those hills, get­ting fit while es­cap­ing the heat and hu­mid­ity of south­ern Texas. But we found the prospect of start­ing from scratch daunt­ing. With wa­ter avail­abil­ity a key is­sue through­out much of the South­west, we were rolling the dice. Would we find enough wa­ter there to sus­tain our horses as well as our­selves year-round? Or would we re­sign our­selves to haul­ing wa­ter in---at a steep price---and mak­ing our dream a sea­sonal one? Some of our neigh­bors had ex­cel­lent-pro­duc­ing wells; oth­ers did not have such good for­tune. But about a half mile from our prop­erty was a wind­mill-fed stock tank that re­port­edly had never gone dry in 100 years. “When I saw the stock tank just north of me and learned it had never failed in a cen­tury, that sealed my de­ci­sion to buy be­cause it was clear to me there was a re­li­able, year-round stream­flow in the wash,” said our neigh­bor Karl Phaler. “While as­cer­tain­ing its ex­act main course might be dif­fi­cult, the de­fault so­lu­tion to well-sit­ing was sim­ply to put it up close to the wash,” he added. That wind­mill and stock tank on the cor­ner, and Karl’s en­dorse­ment of its longevity, gave us the courage to move for­ward. Now we needed to find a well driller. We learned of an outfit---El­liott Broth­ers Drilling--out of Pie Town that used the an­cient art of dows­ing for wa­ter to help pin­point the most aus­pi­cious lo­ca­tions to drill. Kathy El­liott had the gift, and now her son Jesse did. It’s a con­tro­ver­sial prac­tice but a pop­u­lar one in these drought­stricken times.


While the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey (USGS) con­tends there is no sci­en­tific ba­sis for dows­ing, a peer-re­viewed study pub­lished by the Ger­man govern­ment doc­u­mented an im­pres­sive suc­cess rate for dowsers who were able to pre­dict both the depth of the wa­ter source and the yield of the well to within 10 to 20 per­cent in ru­ral Sri Lanka, Zaire, Kenya, Namibia and Ye­men over a 10-year drought pe­riod. We thought of it as an­other part of our wa­ter-seek­ing tool kit. Wal­ter El­liott and his son Jesse met us at the prop­erty the day after we con­tacted them. Noth­ing es­caped their at­ten­tion, from slope and ter­rain to ant mounds. As de­scribed in the pre­vi­ous in­stall­ment, “Fall­ing in Love With New Mex­ico” (EQUUS 477), Jesse strode off pur­pose­fully with a pair of brass rods (some dowsers use a forked stick, pen­du­lum or other de­vice). Jesse walked the road and then headed up­hill, as if guided by an un­seen force, with the rods stretched out be­fore him. Sud­denly, the rods snapped to­gether at a spot near the north­west cor­ner of the prop­erty, part­way up a rise.

“This is the place,” Jesse said qui­etly. At a loom­ing cost of $25 per drilled foot and with no guar­an­tees, we took a deep breath and said, “Go for it.”


After we ob­tained the nec­es­sary per­mits from the State of New Mex­ico, Al­bu­querque of­fice (in­clud­ing fil­ing the pre­cise GPS co­or­di­nates of the pro­posed well and pay­ing a fee of $125), the El­liotts brought their drilling rig to the prop­erty. Just mov­ing the rig is a huge task: It con­sists of a tow­er­ing der­rick, a sup­port truck with 300 to 400 feet of drill pipe and a huge air com­pres­sor.

The El­liotts use what is called a down­the-hole (DTH) ham­mer rather than the more com­mon tri­cone roller. It’s ba­si­cally a gi­ant jack­ham­mer po­si­tioned di­rectly be­hind the drill bit. It is

con­sid­ered one of the fastest ways to break up rocks and as a re­sult, it rev­o­lu­tion­ized the quarry in­dus­try.

“We found we could drill faster and more ef­fi­ciently with air,” said El­liott. “We also drill with mud, but air is so much faster and cleaner, so we use it when­ever we can.” The pneu­matic ap­proach worked for our well, be­cause the ma­te­rial be­ing drilled was mostly com­pressed vol­canic ash, sand­stone and clays, some of which were sandy and grav­elly.

On the first day, the crew dug. And dug. And dug. They made it to 150 feet by day’s end, with noth­ing to show for their ef­forts. El­liott called and asked if we’d like them to con­tinue drilling in the morn­ing.

We took an­other deep breath and said, “Keep go­ing.”

As they drilled on the sec­ond day, Kenny and I waited anx­iously for news of the well. Around 3 p.m. I

On the first day, the crew dug. And dug. And dug. They made it to 150 feet by day’s end, with noth­ing to show for their ef­forts. El­liott called and asked if we’d like them to con­tinue drilling in the morn­ing.

no­ticed I had a voice­mail from Wal­ter. He sounded ex­cited.

“We hit wa­ter at around 235 feet, and it looks like you’ll have plenty,” he said.

Re­lief and joy flooded our thoughts. When all was said and done and recorded, it looked like we’d have a nice pro­duc­ing well of about 20 gal­lons per minute (gpm), well be­yond the 12 gpm often rec­om­mended for horse prop­er­ties.

Now we could con­tinue plan­ning our dream ranch in the moun­tains of New Mex­ico with con­fi­dence.

The well­head was cased with heavy­duty, four-and-a-half-inch PVC pipe and capped for the win­ter, await­ing in­stal­la­tion of a well pump and stor­age cis­tern. Our goal is to store enough wa­ter for a week or more---al­ways a good idea where livestock are con­cerned. As soon as the ground thawed and we’ve de­cided on barn- and home-build­ing sites, we’d be able to run un­der­ground wa­ter lines up the hill to those sites. Horse wa­ter comes first!


Our next big de­ci­sion would be whether to in­stall a so­lar-pow­ered well pump or sim­ply ex­tend elec­tri­cal power a short dis­tance to sup­ply power to the pump. So­lar seems like a good choice in New Mex­ico, given the high num­ber of sunny days. A min­i­mum of six hours a day of sun is rec­om­mended for most so­lar in­stal­la­tions.

Karl’s well is so­lar-pow­ered, and El­liott added his thumbs up. “I like so­lar,” he said without hes­i­ta­tion. His per­sonal so­lar pump has never missed a day in more than three years. He rec­om­mended Grund­fos, a world leader in re­new­able en­ergy (so­lar pan­els and wind tur­bines). Kenny and I are all for that as well as be­ing as much off the grid as we can on our new ranch.

The unit we chose would need to pump wa­ter a to­tal of 300 feet (ver­ti­cally) to reach from the bot­tom of the well to struc­tures on top of the hill. We’d need to trench with a back­hoe about three feet deep to bury the wa­ter lines and pro­tect them from freez­ing. “In a nor­mal year, you might not need to go that deep, but you can get a se­ri­ous freeze in some years,” cau­tioned El­liott.

Mean­while, the cor­ner posts of the fence had been in­stalled be­fore

the first freeze. Since then, Kenny and I spent many a win­ter’s evening home on our Texas ranch por­ing over build­ing plans and chang­ing our minds at least twice a week about what to build.

Our lat­est game plan was to meet a lo­cal builder at the prop­erty in March to go over site de­sign and pre­lim­i­nary con­struc­tion plans for a horse fa­cil­ity in­clud­ing tack room and wash racks, hay stor­age unit, feed shed and house. We don’t plan to keep horses in the barn other than for spe­cial needs on a tem­po­rary ba­sis, such as our se­nior Ara­bian mare who often be­comes chilled in cold rain.

Find­ing wa­ter was the first ma­jor mile­stone of our ranch-build­ing ad­ven­ture. The dream was be­gin­ning to take shape. Com­ing next: Site plan­ning

WA­TER­WORKS: The dows­ing rods snapped to­gether at a spot near the north­west cor­ner of the prop­erty.

Ed­i­tor’s note: In the “Start­ing From Scratch” se­ries, long­time EQUUS writer and ed­i­tor Bob­bie Lieber­man shares the ex­cite­ment, un­cer­tain­ties, chal­lenges and joys of build­ing a new ranch for her horses. READY TO FLOW: The well­head was cased with...

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