Monday, June 23, 2014

Episode 219 (6-23-14): Water Well Construction is an Ancient and Modern Human Endeavor

Click to listen to episode (2:42)


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of June 23, 2014.

This week, we feature another mystery sound.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds, and see if you can guess what’s making this rattling and humming sound.  And here’s a hint: think deep into human civilization, and you’ll guess well enough.


If you guessed, drilling a water well, you’re right!  That was the sound of a well-drilling rig in June 2014, working through 100 to 200 feet of limestone bedrock to reach groundwater for a residence in Montgomery County, Virginia.  For thousands of years, humans have been developing ways to dig below the earth’s surface to reach groundwater aquifers.  Hands and hand-tools were the first well-digging methods, of course, and still today relatively shallow and wide hand-dug wells remain important in developing parts of the world.  Drilling allows deeper and narrower wells, and in the United States, water-well drilling dates back to the early 1800s, at that time using a method that originated in China and had been in use some 4000 years.  Since then, many different drilling methods and machines have been developed to adapt to the various geological conditions drillers encounter and to make drilling more efficient.  Modern well drillers also must follow regulations intended to prevent groundwater pollution that could threaten public health or the environment.  In Virginia, that tradition dates back at least to 1610, when the Colony of Virginia’s first sanitation law required that, quote, “no man or woman...make cleane, any kettle, pot, or pan, or such like vessell within twenty foote of the olde well.”  Thanks to Blacksburg well-driller Wayne Fenton for permission to record this week’s sounds.

For other water sounds and music, and for more Virginia water information, visit our Web site at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  From the Virginia Water Resources Research Center in Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.

[All Internet addresses mentioned were functional as of 6/23/14]

Top: Well-drilling rig.  Bottom: Rotary drilling and the  mixture of soil, rock, and water being brought to the surface.  Both photos taken at a Montgomery County, Va., residential well-drilling project by Fenton Well Drilling and Pump Service of Blacksburg, Va., June 20, 2014.

The sounds in this episode were recorded on June 20, 2014, at a residential well-drilling site in Montgomery County, Va.  Thanks to Wayne Fenton, owner of Fenton Well Drilling and Pump Service in Blacksburg, Va., for permission to record his work that day and for providing information for this episode.

Sources for this episode
Information on the past and present of water wells was taken from the following:
Groundwater and Wells, Second Edition
, by Fletcher G. Driscoll (St. Paul, Minn.: Johnson Screens, 1986);
“Notes on the early history of water-well drilling in the United States,” by Charles W. Carlston, Economic Geology (Vol. 38, pages 119-136, 1943); available online at (subscription may be required for access);

“Hand-dug Wells,” WaterAid (January 2013), online at;

Principles of Water Resources: History, Development, Management, and Policy
, Third Ed., by Thomas V. Cech (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), pages 1—4;

Water Wells and Boreholes
, by Bruce Misstear et al. (Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), pages 1—6.

Virginia’s regulations on private wells
(Virginia Administrative Code, Sec. 12 VAC 5-630) are available online at  “Design and Construction Criteria” are in Part III, starting at Section 12 VAC 5-630-350.


Information on Virginia’s 1610 sanitation law was taken from the Virginia Department of Health Web site at; and from “First Hand Accounts of Virginia 1575-1705,” at the University of Virginia’s “Virtual Jamestown” Web site, (see Article 1.22).

Other sources of information about water wells and well-drilling
Virginia Household Water Quality Program and Virginia Master Well-owner Network, Virginia Tech Department of Biological Systems Engineering, online at  For more information about these programs, contact Erin Ling, phone (540) 231-9058; e-mail:

“Pulse of the Planet” (Web site: segments with Virginia well-driller Eric Rorrer and with Erin Ling, the coordinator of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program and Virginia Master Well-owner Network.  The three segments are as follows:
March 10, 2014: Water-Drilling
March 11, 2014: Water - Surface and Ground
March 12, 2014: Water-Well Maintenance

Virginia Water News and Other Information
            For news, events, and resources relevant to Virginia's water resources, grouped into categories, please visit the Virginia Water Central News Grouper, available online at