A hose from a neighbor's outdoor spigot has been the Grable family's source of water since the end of May when their drinking well ran dry after 21 years.
"I don't have great water pressure, so it's not been great," said Chris Grable, who lives in the Society Hill neighborhood near Breton Bay south of Leonardtownn.
Similar neighborhood well failures in recent weeks, attributed to poorly dug wells, dropping ground water levels and an aquifer overburdened with too many wells, have led county sanitary officials to conclude that the likelihood of "additional well failures is high" in the Breton Bay area. In all, seven wells have failed recently, and there are other reported problems -- low water pressure, and sediment, sand and air mixed with water.
The Metropolitan Commission, the public water and sewer commission for St. Mary's County, is recommending that the Grables and more than 150 other households in the area consider switching from individual private wells to a public water system.
The commission is surveying residents to gauge support for the proposal, which would require the creation of a special taxing district.
If 51 percent of the residents agree, the commission will dig a public well big enough to accommodate the neighborhood, install a water main and connect each house to it, said Larry Petty, a former director of MetCom who now works as a consulting grants administrator for the quasi-government agency.
Under the proposal, a $900,000 public system would cost each customer $30 a month, or $352 a year, plus the $12 monthly water bill, officials said.
Because such a system would include fire hydrants where there are none now, homeowners could save hundreds of dollars in insurance costs, said Steven L. King, director of MetCom, in a June 17 letter to a neighborhood resident.
King said the public system is "the most cost-effective solution to this problem," especially when compared with the cost of individual wells, which range from $6,000 to $8,000.
Grable said he plans to vote yes to the proposal. But resident Mickey Bailey, who spent $300 last year to lower the pump on his well, said he's "not so sure about" the public system because he'd have to pay for capping his private well, hundreds of dollars for hookup, and monthly charges.
"You're paying them to set up, and you're paying them to have it. It's like cable television," Bailey said.
Thomas Russell, director of the county's environmental health office, the agency in charge of private wells, said the resident surveys will be tabulated and analyzed in the coming weeks.
"I'm not comfortable in saying we're advocating any clear-cut directions," Russell said. "I'd say from a practical standpoint, it makes more sense to have a public system, but I know that there are people out there who are opposed to public water."
Most St. Mary's County residents rely on private wells for household water. Public systems operated by MetCom serve about 26,000 customers. Grable and others say the development boom in recent years has created a higher demand for wells in St. Mary's. That, in turn, has helped cause the water pressure drop in some neighborhoods.
Last year, a study commissioned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found that demand on Aquia, one of two aquifers supplying St. Mary's, could reach capacity in 25 years.
Society Hill's reduced water pressure primarily is a result of too many private wells tapping into one source, officials said. Another source of the neighborhood's water problems has to do with the construction of the wells themselves, King said.
The wells -- most dug in the 1970s -- are deep: They are drilled 460 to 480 feet below the ground surface, down to a sandy layer of the Aquia. In the past, well drillers sunk 4-inch casings down to the "static level" of water forced up the pipe by natural pressure. Drillers then used 2-inch casings to reach the aquifer itself.
But as static water levels dropped -- because each new private well decreases overall water pressure -- the pumps could only be lowered to the bottom of the 4-inch casings. In the Grables' case, that is 190 feet underground, not far enough.