It's deep into the drought and the well people are scurrying around, buckets at the ready.

Here a bucket to catch the six gallons or so of daily drips from underneath an air conditioner. There a bucket under a shower head to salvage the five gallons that otherwise would go down the drain. The well user who has devised yet another way to recycle water is chest-puffing proud.

There are roughly 70,000 households with private wells in the distant and close-in Washington suburbs, and they have turned squinty-eyed as they scan the cracks and crannies of their households for possible drips--or outright wastefulness.

"My kids like to wash their clothes in separate loads, but we're having no more of that," said Barbara Thomas, 55, who lives in the Loudoun County hamlet of Lucketts and has been searching--vainly--for deeper meaning in her predicament. "So much of the rain has bypassed us, even the stuff that Leesburg has gotten. Don't ask me why. We've been good people."

In the battle of nature versus the well people, the people are ahead--but only by dribs and drabs. Unlike those who rely on municipal water supplies, the well-dependent fear the day they will turn on the tap and nothing will come out.

They've seen a few of their neighbors' wells run dry, heard about the emergency water truck deliveries. It makes for a powerful incentive to conserve.

"Everybody's being very, very cautious," said Elizabeth Tolbert, 73, born and raised in Barnesville and mayor of the tiny northern Montgomery County town for 28 years. "We're all scared to death about wasting a drop of water."

Patty Menke, of Barnesville, stopped using her washing machine and now scrubs laundry on an old-style wringer she hauled home from an auction.

"My mother always told us that water is God's gift, so don't waste it," said Menke, 45, whose family is washing dishes no more than once a day and throwing the rinse water on plants.

Across the street, Silvia Banales Weaver, 35, has rigged a funnel below a drainpipe on the backyard shed, hoping to score a few gallons of rainwater in a 50-gallon drum. To no avail.

"I'm just terrified that if the well dries up, we're in trouble," Weaver said. "It's one thing not to have water for the plants, but if the wells start drying up, that's a totally different problem. That's water we need just for every day."

Local government health departments report that five or six private wells have gone dry this summer in almost every county in the Washington area. The numbers aren't huge, but the knowledge of even one family running to the neighbor's house for showers and drinking water is taken as a bad omen.

It will be spring, at the earliest, before well-users can stop fearing the dry tap, hydrologists say. It will take that long for rain to replenish the area's many different sizes and shapes of underground aquifers, some of them river-like, others tortured cracks in ancient granite.

"It's unlikely that even rain showers between now and the fall are going to do much to water levels," said Bill Alley, chief of the groundwater office at the U.S. Geological Survey and a private well owner himself. "Most of the recharge of the ground water system takes place from late fall to spring."

In winter, Alley explained, any rain that falls is less likely to evaporate, and plants are dormant and thus unable to swipe all the liquid stuff for transpiration. Wells that are low this summer might not have been recharged fully last winter, he added.

The well people are scattered widely around the suburbs. Fairfax, Prince William, Howard and Loudoun counties each have 12,000 to 17,000 private wells.

Ask well-users who will survive the drought, and they'll tell you that the deeper the well, the less likely it is to go dry. And that a well spurting 50 gallons a minute is a safer bet than one yielding a paltry five gallons a minute.

There's some truth to that, Alley said. People who can brag that their well is gushing water "certainly should be more confident than others," he said. But all bets are off if the well is on top of a hill or a mountain because water flows downhill. And geology is a crazy thing around here.

"This is a complicated one," Alley said, "because in much of the area, the wells are in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge, and the water is coming from a fracture which is underground in rock, so you don't have any way of evaluating it."

In light of the unknown, it's best to take no chances. That extra six gallons is good for one flushing of the toilet. Geraniums don't care if their liquid nourishment started out as someone's dishwater.

"You learn to use every single drop of water you've got," said Uta Brown, 54, of Purcellville, who is washing dishes in a basin and hauling extra water for the family orchards from nearby Crooked Run.

You can hire someone to deepen your well or dig a new one, of course. Except that the waiting list is a month or two at some well-drilling companies, even though their crews are working 20-hour days.

Paul Draisey, 43, a Loudoun resident, said his well has been yielding 65 gallons a minute this summer and he's confident that it won't go dry. Still, he is doing his part. To salvage his wife's ivy topiaries, he has taken some leftover culvert hosing and connected it to a bucket and a downspout.

Proud as he is about the well, Draisey is sober in the face of nature.

"Sooner or later, if we're all sucking out of the same water source, it'll go dry," he said, snipping off the tops of his dead azaleas.


* Virginia has 539,242 household wells, serving approximately 5 percent of the population. Maryland has 310,417 such wells serving about 12 percent of the population. The District has 181 household wells.

* The deeper the well, the less likely it will go dry. Shallow wells usually are the first to give out of water, but even deep ones, if they are on hills, can run dry.

* Wells that yield large amounts of water per minute, even during dry periods, are generally considered to be at little risk of running dry.

* If a well seems to have run dry, check first for mechanical problems, such as a malfunctioning pump. It's cheaper to fix a pump than to drill a new well.

* Ground water is replenished mostly in late fall and winter, when rainfall is normally higher and aquifers aren't competing for water with leafy trees and plants.

* It takes four months for rainfall to recharge wells . Low rainfall in the fall and winter of 1998 is the main reason wells are now drying up.

SOURCES: 1990 U.S. Census of Housing, National Ground Water Association, U.S. Geological Survey.

CAPTION: Barnesville Mayor Elizabeth Tolbert sits in the living room of her house. "Everybody's being very, very cautious," she said.

CAPTION: Mayor Elizabeth Tolbert, who was born and raised in Barnesville, discusses the drought with Bob Lillard, who lives across the street. The well on Tolbert's property was the tiny northern Montgomery County town's first.

CAPTION: Silvia Banales Weaver moved to Barnesville with her husband two years ago. "I'm just terrified that if the well dries up, we're in trouble," Weaver said.