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January 17, 2008 

Upscale Homeowners Facing Drought Dig for Water

Like a lot of North Carolina homeowners, Jorge Pericchi sees the effects of the drought each time he steps outside his house.

For the past several weeks, the community water system that serves Pericchi's neighborhood has limited how often residents can water their lawns and gardens.

"This grass is all brown, halfway dead," Pericchi said as he stood in the front yard of his two-month-old house. Several newly planted holly bushes and other shrubs have already wilted and turned brown.

Watering restrictions are common across the Southeast as officials struggle to conserve the area's dwindling water supply. Many homeowners have become accustomed to living with brown grass and thirsty shrubbery. But Pericchi who works in the landscaping business decided to take steps to keep his own lawn green.

Last week, he hired a crew to drill a private well in his front yard. It cost more than $3,000, but to Pericchi, it's a sound investment that will allow him to keep watering his grass and gardens.

"You put a lot of effort into making sure it looks great," Pericchi said. "We thought we were going to lose 15,000 square feet of sod."

It used to be almost unheard of for people who are served by public water systems to dig wells in their yards. But as those public systems impose watering restrictions because of the drought, private irrigation wells are becoming more common, especially in upscale neighborhoods.

Wake County, N.C., where Pericchi lives, has issued permits for more than 25 irrigation wells in the past six weeks. And local well driller Jason Poole said his company has installed dozens of them since the drought began.

"This summer alone, I'll say at least 50 already," Poole said. He says his company has "a whole stack" of wells left to drill.

State laws typically place few restrictions on private irrigation wells. Even drought-stricken communities that ban outdoor watering from public supplies usually can't stop private well owners from irrigating.

But in North Carolina, some leaders are concerned about the growing popularity of irrigation wells. The resort town of Pinehurst last month imposed a moratorium on new wells, and state officials are warning that some irrigation wells can affect local water tables.

"Putting in new wells for irrigation may affect some neighbors who are dependent on their wells not just for irrigation, but for their ordinary complete domestic water supply," said John Morris, the director of the North Carolina Division of Water Resources.

Morris said the impact of any individual well depends on such factors as the local geology and who else might be using groundwater nearby. Many wells, he said, have a negligible effect on neighbors.

Still, in the spirit of "shared sacrifice," Morris discourages all North Carolinians including private well owners from watering their lawns.
"We all need to conserve this essential resource together," Morris said. "It's sort of like your mother telling you to eat your green peas because children in other parts of the world don't have enough to eat."

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