Driest spring ever saps home's well

Juneau has received less than an inch of rain in a 53-day period

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2002

Dixie Hood believed she never would run out of water in Juneau.

Hood lives off Back Loop Road, and Juneau's driest spring on record has left her well pump sucking air.

"It's only happened once before in 22 years," Hood said. "I was thinking I might have to do a rain dance or something. I need rain."

Most residents have plenty of water because there's no shortage in wells and a reservoir that supply the city water system.

But Hood is feeling the impacts of a spring the National Weather Service said is Juneau's driest in recorded history.

Between March 3 and April 24, Juneau received 0.94 inches of rain, a record low for a 53day period any time of year.

"The next lowest is 2.12 inches in 1989, that was a dry spring. That was over 2 inches and we haven't even gotten an inch," said meteorologist Laura Furgione.

Juneau has received just 0.47 inches of rain this month, 2.3 inches below normal.

Because January and February were wet, the year-to-date rainfall, 10.7 inches, is not a record low. The year-to-date average is about 13 inches.

Hood said she is getting water from a neighbor until it rains. Her well is 25 feet deep, which is normally more than adequate for an unlimited supply of water.

Larry Schultz at Larry's Quality Heating and Plumbing said wells such as Hood's were common 20 years ago in the Mendenhall Valley. The wells are simple, basically a perforated pipe driven down into the water table, which usually is at about 20 feet.

In the mid-1980s the city extended water service throughout the valley and these days very few people use wells.

Schultz and other plumbing companies around town that deal with wells and catchment systems said they hadn't heard of any other low-water related problems.

Grant Ritter, Juneau's water operations and maintenance supervisor, said the Mendenhall Valley aquifer can be capricious.

"Even back when a lot of the valley was on wells, there'd be a freeze and wells would go dry and the water would never come back," he said. "Or quality of the water in the well would get better or worse. It's the nature of the underground streams out there, they change course. Material underground moves as it thaws."

City water extends out Glacier Highway to Tee Harbor. Beyond that homeowners deal with their own water and sewer. Ritter said some people out the road and a few in North Douglas use roof catchment systems and trap and store rainfall.

The city makes water available to people off the line through a distribution system at the Lynn Canal Fire Station. For a $25 fee, a coded key is provided. People bring their own storage containers and the key turns on a metered dispenser. Users are charged $1.75 per thousand gallons. About 20 people have keys, Ritter said.

The Salmon Creek reservoir normally supplies about half of Juneau's water. It's low, but the city wells below Gold Creek next to Basin Road are fine.

"The basin aquifer has plenty of water in it," Ritter said. "I've seen the creek low and frozen in the winter, but never seen the aquifer itself drop off.

The weather also has affected the level of water in lakes supplying hydroelectric power to Juneau.

Since spring has been colder than average, precipitation has fallen as snow at the higher elevations, said Gayle Wood, office manager at Alaska Electric Light and Power.

"We need warm rain falling to create snow-melting conditions and runoff to bring the lake levels up," she said. "We have a good snow pack. We need inflows, give us inflows."

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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