Where’s the water?

Rainwater may fall on Sandstone 50 miles from the wells that supply people's kitchen faucets.When I was young, finding water was fairly easy. An old farmer would take a forked apple branch, some of the younger fellows used a wire coat hanger bent into the requisite “Y,” and head out to the area one proposed digging a well. It was called “dowsing.”

Holding the branch by the short legs, the long end poking out in front, the dowser would begin to walk around. Eventually, the tip of the divining rod would dip toward the earth. At the point the rod dipped deepest – hopefully, pointed straight down – the person in need of water started digging.

Usually, the dowser was right. Arthur Staples (I think was his name) found my parents water that way in 1950, and it gave us reliable running water, primarily because a pair of young legs would run out to the hand pump, fill a 10-quart bucket, and run back to the kitchen. Later, we built the Big House and ran a pipe from the well into the cellar, where an electric pump kept the abode supplied, and kids could reliably take showers nightly, rather than only on Saturday night.

No one gave much thought to where the water came from. I recall thinking for awhile that it came from the lake in front of our home, but I eventually figured out that was not true. The level in the well normally was several feet higher than the lake, especially in spring when a few boards were removed from the dam and the lake water level was allowed to lower so summer people could rebuild the retaining walls – destroyed by winter ice – that kept their camps from becoming fish habitat.

The past two decades I have been writing about Adams County water – and the potential lack thereof – most of the discussion has been around water that is below local housing and industry, and the hoped-for replenishment of that water with rainfall from above it. Shortage was been particularly acute east of Gettysburg a few years ago, when the county built a new prison and landowners in the area began running out of water. Unfortunately, most of the wells were dug shallow in ground that was said to have poor water-holding capability.

It was so-called diabase – molten magma pushed up to form a vertical wall, running from the southwest to northeast, when the North American continent tore itself loose from Africa. The magma cooled into an impervious mass judged to be incapable of passing or collecting water.

But there must be some cracks in that wall, according to a water research team from Franklin and Marshall College, who recently made an amazing discovery.

One of the researchers, a Ph.D. candidate named Jake Longenecker, was in a spring pool in Boiling Springs, Pa., when he noticed the water suddenly becoming deeper. He looked around and there was no rain anywhere to be seen. Coincidentally, NASA had recently started a satellite project to measure the world’s rainfall, in 10 square kilometer tiles. It turned out there had been heavy rain in Maryland, about 50 miles from Boiling Springs, The rain falling into the ground in Carroll County, Md., was pushing water out of the ground in Cumberland County, Pa.

The water flows through 10 types of rock structures – including the aforementioned “impervious” diabase, under South Mountain. Longenecker and his two geoscience professors, Tim Bechtel and Robert Walter, have embarked on research that might one day tell us where else water might flow. As the planet warms and cities and nations around the world find traditional water sources drying up, that could be valuable information.

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